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Background Facts: Herbal Therapy and Breastfeeding

The physical, emotional, and neurological benefits of breastfeeding are well documented — breast-fed babies receive the best nutrition and immune support that a mother can give. But unfortunately, this seemingly simple and natural act doesn't always work as easily as it should.

To increase milk production, most doctors recommend pumping the breasts regularly, getting sufficient rest, and drinking plenty of water, but when such steps aren't enough, conventional Western physicians often turn to breast-milk-inducing prescription drugs such as Reglan.

Reglan stimulates production of the hormone prolactin, encouraging milk production and aiding in the release of milk from the milk glands. Reglan yields excellent results but may cause side effects including dizziness, nausea, and depression.

For new mothers concerned about taking prescription drugs while breast-feeding, there are herbal alternatives passed down from herbalists and midwives, generation to generation, namely fennel, fenugreek, and goat's rue.

Fenugreek is a spice used to flavor imitation maple syrup, and many women report that their bodies and their milk smell like maple syrup soon after beginning this herbal treatment. Fennel is an herb that smells like licorice and, used as a tea or in capsules, has purported milk-producing qualities. While goat's rue has been used to increase milk production in dairy cows for over a century, experts believe it works for humans as well.

However, there have been no studies done in the United States to determine the efficacy, safety, or optimal dosage of fenugreek or any other herbal remedies for milk production. Nevertheless, these herbs are being used today by doctors and lactation consultants even in conventional hospital settings, with positive results.

Some side effects reported from women using fenugreek include diarrhea, increased asthma symptoms, and lower blood-glucose levels and, while fenugreek is included on the FDA's list of herbs generally regarded as safe, it may also disturb the uterus and thus best avoided during pregnancy.