Galactagogues: What are they and how can they help?
Low milk supply is a major concern for many lactating parents, and an insufficient supply—or what parents perceive to be an insufficient supply—often leads them to start supplementing with galactagogues: herbs, food, drink, and sometimes medications that may increase milk supply. But do galactagogues really work, and are there any associated risks?
While plenty of lactating parents swear by certain herbs for boosting milk production, the existing evidence that herbal galactagogues work better than placebos is still purely anecdotal—that is, scientific studies cannot yet support these parents’ claims. Furthermore, most herbal supplements are not regulated by the FDA.
That said, many nursing parents recommend fenugreek, an herb believed to stimulate sweat glands and therefore mammary glands (which, structurally, are modified sweat glands). After first consulting with their doctor or International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, most lactating parents can ingest small amounts of fenugreek without any notable problems. However, potential side effects may include digestive issues, headaches, and dizziness. Fenugreek can also cause severe allergic reactions in some people—particularly those with nut or legume sensitivities—and large doses could cause a dangerous drop in blood sugar. Additional herbs believed to be galactagogues include anise, caraway, fennel, hops, lemon balm, milk thistle, and nettle. Much like fenugreek, however, these herbs have not been scientifically proven to aid milk production, and may come with risks. Always talk to your IBCLC or doctor before experimenting with a new supplement!
Many foods are widely believed to increase milk supply, including barley, brewer’s yeast, chickpeas, flax, and oats. But like herbal galactagogues, there are not enough studies to confirm that these foods directly impact lactation. Nevertheless, recipes for lactation cookies (often containing several galactagogues at once, like oats, coconut, flax, and almonds) abound… and while the galactagogue hype remains scientifically unfounded, lactating parents could always benefit from simply eating nutrient-dense foods that give them the energy and stamina they need to meet their breastfeeding goals. Talk to your doctor or IBCLC before you add a new food to your diet and, of course, steer clear of any foods you or your baby have a known allergic reaction to. Know that your baby could also have a negative response to certain purported galactagogue foods—like garlic—which is all the more reason to consult your doctor or IBCLC.
Synthetic drugs intended for use as galactagogues do exist, but none have been approved by the FDA (the FDA has, in fact, warned against the use of Domperidone), and some have been shown to cause severe depression. Talk to your doctor or IBCLC to understand your prescription options—and potential risks.
Simply put, there is not enough scientific evidence to support the efficacy of galactagogues. Beyond that, it’s never recommended to self-diagnose a low milk supply as many lactating parents who fear they have an insufficient milk supply actually don’t—oftentimes, the real issue is an improper latch, hormonal issues in the parent, or some other factor. That’s why it’s essential to seek out guidance from your doctor or IBCLC if you’re questioning how to increase milk supply or struggling with any facet of lactation. They can help identify where your troubles stem from and your best course of action. Then again, if you’re galactagogue-curious and get the okay from your doctor, you might be able to join the chorus of people who vouch for them!