Galactagogues.. past and present By Emily Brittingham, Breastfeeding Counsellor

Galacta-what?! No, it’s not an autocorrect error, a new kid’s show featuring an intergalactic superhero, or some kind of mythical lactating goblin! Derived from ancient Greek language where ‘galacta’ means milk and ‘algogos’ mean leading, a galactagogue is a substance that helps to lead milk from the breast. Galactagogues aim to build, maintain or enhance milk supply in breastfeeding women. You may also hear galactagogues referred to as lactogenic substances.

There is evidence to suggest that galactagogues and lactogenic substances have been used for thousands of years, or more accurately, from the very beginning of time. Has your Grandma ever suggested you should drink beer to boost your breastmilk supply? Did your well-meaning mother in law assure you that she ate oats for breakfast every day and never had any trouble breastfeeding? Has your maternal and child health nurse suggested switching your morning latte to fennel tea? Maybe someone in your new mothers group swears her daily vanilla and coconut milk super smoothie has her expressing bottles of milk straight after feeding her baby. However questionable these suggestions may seem at first, the sharing of advice and use of complimentary substances in conjunction with breastfeeding predates our mother and grandmothers. Before you dismiss what can sometimes feel like unwarranted advice, consider that the knowledge around galactagogues and lactogenic substances has actually been obtained from our ancestors!!

Just as women encounter difficulties with breastfeeding today, so too did they in the past. Historical records show the use of galactagogues in ancient traditional medical practices. It is believed there were textbooks from bygone eras documenting the results from experiments using herbal remedies in breastfeeding women in ancient India. Although these records have been lost in history, they formed the basis for Ayurvedic medicine. This traditional method of healing which dates back to the 1st century BC is still used today, and includes fennel and dill in its treatments for low milk supply in breastfeeding mothers.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (which was recorded in written form over 2000 years ago, yet existed in spoken form for many millennia prior to that) also includes remedies for breastfeeding difficulties. This ancient form of medicine focuses on qi (also known as chi), or energy of the body. It is believed that the onset of lactation is affected due to the depletion of qi during pregnancy and childbirth. A diet rich in grains and legumes is prescribed in order to balance the qi and establish breastfeeding.

Ancient Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides wrote “The Material of Medicine” over 2000 years ago which contains an impressive 30 remedies for common breastfeeding problems. His treatments included a range of substances from herbs, fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains and legumes, to sea water (I strongly believe a dip in the ocean heals just about everything), and were used for the treatment of engorgement, mastitis, to increase or decrease milk supply, and even one for re-lactation. Incredible!

Fast forward a couple of thousand years and we now understand the single most effective way of maintaining or increasing milk supply is frequent and effective removal of milk from the breast. We also know that breastfeeding burns loads of kilojoules and that most breastfeeding mums require extra nutritional snacks in their diet for their own energy levels and health benefits.

Although some traditional beliefs and practices may have been lost to modern medicine, what remains consistent throughout time is the need for support of breastfeeding mothers. Just like our forefathers and foremothers sought advice and remedies surrounding lactation, so too do we today. In our modern, busy lives we place unrealistic expectations on ourselves to do it all and have it all, and sometimes we forget that we need our village.Once again I invite you all to be a part of our village, and I’d love to hear any stories you might like to share about weird or wonderful galactagogues you have tried or have had recommended to you!

It is important to understand that breastfeeding works on a principle of supply and demand, and that if you are experiencing problems with breastfeeding you seek help from an appropriate health care provider such as a doctor, a maternal and child health nurse, the Australian Breastfeeding Association or an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.

Remember, you cannot fill from an empty cup so to all the breastfeeding mummas out there, please remember to nourish yourselves as you nourish your beautiful babies. #ittakesavillage #boobiebikkiesvillage

References and Further Reading:

Australian Breastfeeding Association. (2017). Galactagogues (substances claimed to increase supply)

Jacobson, H. (2004). Mother Food: A Breastfeeding Diet Guide with Lactogenic Foods and Herbs - Build Milk Supply, Boost Immunity, Lift Depression, Detox, Lose Weight, Optimize a Baby’s IQ, and Reduce Colic and Allergies. Mother Food Book Series / Rosalind Press

McKay, P. (2018). Making More Mummy Milk, Naturally.

Emily Brittingham is a mum of three beautiful young children and a qualified Breastfeeding Counsellor with the Australian Breastfeeding Assocation. She is currently  studying a Bachelor of Sciences Degree (Health Sciences) as a pathway to becoming an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.