If you’re struggling to produce breast milk, you may want to listen up.
Many women are finding nursing easier when they take a herb called fenugreek.
Long before the idea became more known in Western culture, Asian medicine recommended the herb to breastfeeding women. But is it just a placebo effect? Can this herb really cure your breastfeeding frustration?
In this post, we’re discussing if fenugreek helps breastfeeding, what the science says and how you can try it yourself.
What is Fenugreek?
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is a herb used as a spice in a variety of foods. If you’ve ever had fake maple syrup, you’ve probably tasted it before because it gives it the artificial flavoring. It’s also found in Indian and Chinese dishes, more specifically in the spice blend gram masala.
Although people may use the plant’s leaves, twigs and roots, their seeds are most commonly associated with health benefits.
Fenugreek is an antioxidant packed with nutrients, such as:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B
- Vitamin D
- B vitamins
There isn’t enough research to conclusively say fenugreek helps with any specific problem. However, people have been using the herb for hundreds or thousands of years to help with a variety of issues. Some people claim fenugreek can help with:
- Digestive issues
- High blood pressure
- Milk production
- Breathing issues
- Exercise performance
- Improving sperm count
- Erectile dysfunction
While there isn’t a large body of evidence to back all of these claims, here’s the most proven benefits:
- Reduce Diabetes Risk. Several studies have shown that fenugreek has anti-diabetic properties. These may help improve insulin sensitivity, reduce lipid-binding protein and improve intestinal glucose absorption. One of the more recent studies showed that mice on a high-fat diet had better glucose tolerance when they were given fenugreek. However, that benefit didn’t occur in rats with a low-fat diet. Although the research seems promising, authors noted that exercise was a more effective intervention.
- A compound in the herb called alkaloids may help block receptors that make you feel pain. In a small 2014 study, women suffering from painful periods were given fenugreek seed capsules for the first 3 days of their period for 2 months. They found that the pain lasted for a shorter amount of time and they had fewer symptoms between their period.
- Inflammation. One of the reasons people claim it can help arthritis is because the high levels of antioxidants in seeds may reduce
- Reduce Heart Condition Risk. There’s some evidence that fenugreek can help regulate cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
Fenugreek Breastfeeding: Does It Actually Work?
Some women say that fenugreek has helped them improve their milk production and flow—and there’s some evidence to back it up. But before we delve into the research on fenugreek and breastfeeding, we should note that while many women take it without issue, it hasn’t been conclusively proven safe.
WebMD lists fenugreek as “possibly safe” while breastfeeding. Some research shows that taking 1725mg three times a day does not cause any side effects to the baby.
Here’s a look at some of the research on fenugreek safety and milk production.
- A small 2014 study divided 75 women into 3 groups: those who took fenugreek tea, palm dates or nothing. The women who had three cups of fenugreek tea daily for 2 weeks increased milk volume in the first weeks. However, on the 14th day, there was no difference between any of the groups. The authors concluded it seemed to be useful in the early postpartum period.
- A 2015 study from Tehran University found that those who drank fenugreek tea also had their infant’s weight significantly increase after 4 weeks. Although their head circumference and wet diapers also increased, there was no significant difference in their height.
- A 2018 study looked at the effects of a tea made with fenugreek seeds. When compared to a lemon tea, there were no negative effects; however, there was no difference in growth between the groups, either.
- A 2018 study conducted in Thailand found that a blend of fenugreek, turmeric and ginger taken 3 times daily for 4 weeks had no side effects for the baby. However, critics point out their method for determining this was not reported.
- In a 2017 survey of 188 nursing women, 46% reported using fenugreek. Out of those, 54% felt that it increased their milk supply. Unfortunately, 45% reported side effects, one of the most common being their body taking on a maple syrup scent.
- A 2018 study in Egypt found that fenugreek affects early stage breastfeeding and prolactin level. However, it did not affect established breastmilk volume or change prolactin levels in later stages.
- A 2018 review of research (involving 122 women) found that the herb significantly increased breast milk production.
There are several other studies on breastfeeding and fenugreek; however, many of them have several issues. For example, here are some problems critics point out:
- Many studies used a very low number of volunteers, were not randomized or blinded or did not have a placebo group. All of this is to say that the quality of these types of studies is so low that most researchers say no accurate conclusion can be drawn from them.
- Many studies follow mothers for a few weeks at most. This means they can’t determine whether fenugreek only has a short-term impact or if it negatively affects health down the line.
- Some studies research the impact of a product containing several ingredients and herbs. This means any effects can’t be accurately or solely attributed to fenugreek.
How To Use Fenugreek While Breastfeeding
You should always talk to your doctor before introducing a new supplement. If they give you the go-ahead, here’s a few ways you can test Fenugreek for potential benefits:
- Purchasing fenugreek seeds and eating them raw (although they can have a bitter taste)
- Making or purchasing fenugreek tea
- Fenugreek oil
- Fenugreek supplements (note: normal fenugreek supplements may be more cost-effective than those branded specifically for breastfeeding)
- Fenugreek incorporated into foods, such as cookies
- Other forms of fenugreek, such as leaves or powder
Keep in mind that since the research is inconclusive, there isn’t a certain dosage that’s been proven ideal. For suggestions, ask your doctor, midwife or lactation consultant. If you’re using a supplement or store-bought tea, read the label for recommendations. Many people who make tea use about a teaspoon of teas for each cup.
If you see an improvement, it may happen as soon as 24 hours to as late as 2 weeks. If you don’t see a difference after this time, it probably doesn’t work for you.
Side Effects of Fenugreek
If you’re planning to try fenugreek for breastfeeding, you should watch out for these side effects:
- Stomach upset
- Maple-like odor in urine or breast milk or body
If these symptoms are unmanageable, you should stop taking the supplement or talk to your doctor. Although allergies to fenugreek are rare, it’s possible.
You should also ask your doctor about whether fenugreek will interact with any medication you may currently be taking. Caution should be taken with these drugs:
- Antidiabetic medication
- Blood clotting medication
You should avoid taking the herb while you’re pregnant. While small amounts found in food are okay, taking larger amounts in supplement form may lead to early contractions and birth abnormalities. In fact, some women report using it to induce labor (though there isn’t enough research on this and it’s not recommended). Taking the herb before labor can also give your baby a strange but likely harmless body odor. This can be confused with “maple syrup urine disease,” a metabolic disorder.
Summary of Fenugreek and Breastfeeding
The evidence on fenugreek and breastfeeding isn’t clear. Although many studies support the benefits, critics point out the flaws in several studies, meaning their conclusions may not be accurate. To learn whether fenugreek can improve milk production, more research needs to be done. Until then, there’s anecdotal evidence that the herb has helped some women. Although it hasn’t conclusively been proven safe, studies don’t currently show any harmful effects for your baby. If your doctor says it’s okay, you may try a fenugreek supplement or tea. If it works for you, great! If not, you’re likely not harming the baby or yourself anyway.
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