Caution: These Foods, Medicines and Herbs Could Reduce Your Breast Milk Supply
Throughout history and across cultures breastfeeding mothers have been fed galactagogues - special foods to boost milk supply. Just as certain foods are ‘lactogenic’ and can support your breastmilk supply, there are also herbs, drinks and foods that are anti-lactogenic and may have a negative impact on your milk supply.
Unfortunately, some of these ‘foods’ are actually recommended for breastfeeding mothers – for instance, have you been told to take fenugreek tablets or drink beer to boost your milk supply? Let’s have a look at the evidence:
Alcohol is anti-galactagogue. Studies on animals and humans show that alcohol impairs the milk ejection reflex, slows the flow of milk, and leads to a reduced intake of milk by the baby for approximately four hours after a mother has been drinking.
As the milk backs-up in the breast, the breast feels fuller. Researchers believe that this combination–the breast feeling fuller, and the baby needing more time to remove milk from the breast, tricks mothers into believing that her baby is drinking more milk. (Hilary Jacobson),
While, historically, breastfeeding mothers used to be given beers to boost milk supply, these were usually either non-alcoholic or low-alcoholic dark beers like stout or ‘small beers’. These beers were made using barley malt and barley grains which are rich in Beta -glucan (a long-chained sugar molecule) which increases prolactin, the milk making hormone. Our modern-day beers tend to be more alcoholic and made with corn, wheat and rice which don’t have lactogenic effects to counteract the anti-lactogenic effects of alcohol.
However, ‘Guinness’ – a British brand of Stout, a dark, thicker beer that is made with barley malt and barley grain, is often recommended for breastfeeding Mums. It has good amounts of beta-glucan that can offset the anti-lactogenic alcohol effects.
It is suggested that drinking after eating a meal, rather than on an empty stomach, then waiting the recommended time (usually two hours per standard drink) to breastfeed or pump, the lactogenic effects of beers such as stout may still be present after the alcohol has passed from the mother’s body, and her milk.
You feel exhausted, you reach for coffee or a caffeine soft drink, or you binge on chocolate (yes, chocolate contains caffeine) to give you a boost, but it could be counter-productive: A newborn can take almost 100 hours to metabolise the caffeine in a single cup of coffee, so will be more wakeful and make you even more exhausted (by 3 to 6 months it won’t have such an impact on your baby).
Lactation consultant and researcher, Hilary Jacobson, explains, “caffeine elevates the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Too much cortisol impairs insulin, a hormone that regulates milk supply. High cortisol also increases dopamine and reduces prolactin.”
While this means that too much caffeine may reduce milk supply, as long as you are otherwise eating a healthy, nourishing diet and responding to your baby’s feeding cues, a couple of cups of coffee or small amounts of chocolate shouldn’t be a problem. If you are concerned, consider switching to decaf or try a coffee substitute such as Caro which is made from barley, so has lactogenic effects, especially in the early days postpartum.
There are a number of herbs that have anti-lactogenic effects and can potentially reduce your milk supply. These include parsley, sage (a cup of sage tea can be helpful to reduce an ‘oversupply’), rosemary, thyme, oregano, peppermint and spearmint.
However, because individual women will vary in sensitivity, there is no specific recommendation to avoid a particular dose. For instance, you might add a bit of parsley to your scrambled eggs perfectly safely but eating a bowl of tabouli, loaded with parsley and mint might be ‘too much’.
A herb that is often recommended to boost breast milk is Fenugreek. While this can be helpful for some women, it can have significant side effects if you have diabetes, are allergic to peanuts or have a thyroid disorder. It can impact the conversion of thyroid hormones and reduce thyroid function, thus reducing your milk supply. Again, when we consider individual sensitivity, a small amount of fenugreek in a curry shared with family members is very different from taking tablets to try and increase your milk supply.
If you do suspect a particular herb might be ‘tanking’ your milk, you can simply boost your supply again by stopping use of that herb and going back to basics – increasing skin-to-skin snuggles, feeding more frequently and perhaps adding some lactogenic foods into your diet.
For top tips to boost your breast milk supply, download our FREE ebook 'Making More Mummy Milk,Naturally' by Pinky McKay, IBCLC lactation consultant
Medications and vitamins
Cold, sinus, allergy and hay-fever medications that contain pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that dries up your mucous membranes, can also have a ‘drying up’ impact on your breastmilk supply.
Birth control pills, injections and hormone-based IUDs can affect milk supply in some women. Depending on your personal circumstances, you may like to check out the Lactation Amenorrhea Method (LAM) to influence breastfeeding hormones and delay fertility – if implemented strictly LAM can be 98% effective in preventing pregnancy within the first 6 months after you give birth.
Vitamin B6 Vitamin B6 can be found in a number of foods such as cereals, bars and sports drinks.
While small amounts aren’t an issue, too much vitamin B6 can increase dopamine which reduces prolactin (the milk production hormone). Years ago, vitamin B6 tablets were recommended to women to ‘dry up’ their breastmilk.
A high dose of B6 is sometimes recommended for nipple vasospasm or Reynauds (when the nipple painfully blanches white). Although there isn’t currently research showing that this works, there is anecdotal evidence that it helps some women. According to Canadian Lactation Specialist, Dr. Newman who also suggests other treatments, 200 mg of vitamin B6 per day is an upper limit for Reynauds/vasospasm.
Its sensible to simply get your nutrients from a variety of healthy, natural foods, rather than supplements, unless advised by your health practitioner and check labels on all food products. If you have any concerns about specific medications or supplements, please check with an expert source such as Rodney Whyte, senior pharmacist at Monash Medical Centre, Melbourne (firstname.lastname@example.org. T: (03) 9594 2361).