These beautiful golden seeds have supported breastfeeding women for thousands of years. Fenugreek is an ancient plant that is both food and medicine. It is one of the first recorded herbs in early Egypt. Every herb book on my shelf speaks of the many benefits of fenugreek seeds for lactation. So, why are modern women concerned about fenugreek seeds? Are there dangers of fenugreek?
Read on to learn how this ancient plant is still serving modern women and helping them breastfeed their babies and make tons of thick, rich breastmilk. Find out why women think they need to boost their supply in the first place. Discover the real concerns about fenugreek and determine if fenugreek is the right herb for you?
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History of Fenugreek
Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) also called Methi is probably the most well known and trusted herb for supporting women's breast health and lactation. I want to highlight how fenugreek promotes lactation, carrying on the tradition of herbalists and midwives who came before us.
Fenugreek originated in the fertile crescent. It has grown with us since the dawn of humanity and culture. It has supported laboring women and mothers from the beginning of recorded history. One of our earliest documentations of medicine is in the Ebers papyri, an Egyptian document dating back to around 1500 BCE. In those papers, fenugreek was noted as a remedy used to induce labor. As fenugreek traveled east, it appeared in Traditional Chinese Medicine documents for issues related to abdominal pain, menstrual cramps, and swelling. Later, it made it around the world to the US, where we used it for hormonal imbalance and as a galactagogue. (increasing milk supply). When I imagine fenugreek, I see that famous greek statue of the goddess with 100's of breast and milk pouring out like a fountain.
Fenugreek is an annual legume that was once known as "Greek hay." and was fodder for livestock. Fenugreek is a nitrogen fixer that feeds the soil and promotes fertility. Today, it is cultivated in the Mediterranean, Turkey, India, and China. The plants grow thick, full of small rounded leaves that could easily be mistaken for clover. It's a beautiful plant to grow that would do well as a ground cover, or to fill a decorative pot with all of its greenery.
The FDA recognizes fenugreek as food, medicine, and flavoring. Fenugreek is listed as a substance "Generally Regarded as Safe" (GRAS) by the FDA. The German Commission E – an organization that maintains herbal monographs based on safety, efficacy, and evidence – has approved and recognizes its safety during lactation.
All of the areal parts of the fenugreek plant are beneficial. The leaves are considered food and are delicious in curries and salads. The maple syrup smelling seeds are considered medicinal and culinary. When fenugreek is utilized as medicine, the seeds are harvested and prepared for topical preparations for inflammation, digestive remedies, culinary spices, and breastfeeding herbal supplements such as teas, capsules, and tinctures. Other recorded benefits include lowering blood sugar and increase hair growth and breast size.
Throughout history, fenugreek has a connection to hormonal conditions that could explain why it is beneficial for lactation. While no studies confirm its use as a galactagogue, its safety and longstanding use for increasing breastmilk supply are pretty convincing.
Seek a Lactation Consultant
I get questions from women struggling with their milk supply all the time!
If you are struggling with breastfeeding and are concerned about your milk supply, my first recommendation is to see a lactation consultant or a La Leche League Leader. They are amazing people and are here to help you figure it out. They are committed to your success, and they have so many good ideas and practical tips that can help you.
See the lactation specialist before you start taking any herbal supplements. It's important to discuss the whole picture with them. Tell about all the medications you are taking so they can have accurate information and guide you to a safe and effective solution to your breastfeeding problems.
The truth is, sometimes, mothers worry about their low milk supply when everything is normal. All these women need is insight and understanding of normal breastfeeding expectations. They need moral support too. We are here to support you, and so are the herbs!
Other moms are getting ready to go back to work and want to stock their freezer with breastmilk. Either way, the guidance of a lactation consultant can help you set up a pumping schedule and learn the best times to introduce the bottle.
Low Breast Milk Supply
Low milk supply has many causes and is often a multifactorial issue that needs to be addressed promptly. There is not a one size fits all answer here. Herbs are an empowering piece of the puzzle because you may feel proactive in your health care. Yet, it is essential to have realistic expectations of the herbs, and even more important is for you to understand the dynamics of the normal ebb and flow of breast milk supply. It is not realistic to expect to take a few fenugreek pills will make it all better. Sometimes taking a supplement might be the simple answer, and other times it might mask the real problem and prolong your situation.
3 Perceived Problems that are Actually Normal
1- The first perceived problem with low milk supply might actually be that your milk supply is regulating. For example, during the first 12 weeks of breastfeeding, your body makes an overabundant supply of milk to make sure your baby gets enough. After 12 weeks, you and your baby start to harmonize and regulate. There is no need for your body to produce extra milk. Instead, your body wants to be efficient and make what your baby needs. An exclusively breastfeeding mom might not notice this dip as much as a pumping mom will. A pumping mom might see that they were pumping 4 ounces, and now they are pumping 2 or 3 ounces. Seeing this dip makes them concerned about a low supply, when in fact, it's part of the normal regulatory process.
2- The second perceived problem is that the mom started her menstruation, and her hormones are fluctuating and causing her supply to dip temporally. This is also normal and will recover in a few days. We have a blog post and video about breastfeeding and menstruation that I'll link below for you.
3-The third perceived problem happens when your baby is going through a growth spurt. During growth spurts, babies nurse and nurse to help them grow. Check out our blog post about How To Know If Your Baby is in a Growth Spurt.
4 Real Reasons for a Low Milk Supply
There, of course, are some genuine reasons for a low milk supply that needs to be addressed.
1- The number one reason is the baby has a poor latch. It might be from and not having a good position; it can be caused by tongue or lip ties that need to be revised. Or, they might have birth trauma that needs to be addressed with bodywork such as chiropractic or cranial sacral therapy. These lead to sore nipples, clogged ducts that lead to mastitis, and low breast milk supply. We have several resources to support you.
2- Moms might not have enough skin to skin time with their baby, or their pumping schedule needs to be revised because they are going back to work.
3-New moms notoriously go long periods without eating or drinking enough water. Again, linked below a blog about Breastfeeding Nutrition and a blog about Healthy Breastfeeding snacks.
4- The mom might be an underlying medical condition, such as hypothyroid or PCOS.
Herbs for Lactation
Once you've ruled out if you are having a perceived or a real breastfeeding issue, you can try herbs like fenugreek as a single herb or blend as we make in our Nursing Nectar Herbal Breastfeeding Tea or a more concentrated effort in Let There Be Milk liquid supplement.
Is fenugreek the herb right for you?
I have an apothecary with close to 100 different herbs. Each herb has it's zone of greatness. Not all herbs are the same. Not all herbs are safe or appropriate for all people or all situations. If that were the case, I'd be standing with just one herb.
Fenugreek is for you if:
- You are returning to work and need to boost your supply
- If you are stocking your freezer
- If you feel like you need support to maintain your supply
- If you are tandem nursing
- If you have a temporary dip in supply due to menstruation, illness, or baby growth spurt
Caution fenugreek is NOT for you if:
- You have peanut allergies or allergies to any kind of legume that should avoid it.
- You have diabetes and are insulin-dependent. Fenugreek has been shown to drop blood sugar levels and could trigger hypoglycemia. Fenugreek is also used to control blood sugar by people with diabetes. If you have diabetes, talk to your healthcare professional before using fenugreek.
- You are pregnant- One theory about why fenugreek works to stimulate breast milk production is its smooth muscle action. (Breast tissue is a smooth muscle.) The uterus and your intestines are also smooth muscles making fenugreek unsafe during pregnancy because it can cause smooth muscle contractions.
- Another reason fenugreek is not intended for pregnancy is that clinical trials have shown that fenugreek lowers blood sugar, causing morning sickness in pregnant women.
- If you have Hypothyroid issues: Fenugreek may lower the thyroid hormone T3: (based on animal studies)
- If you have estrogen dominate issues such as PCOS
- There are known herb-drug interactions with blood thinners. Don't take fenugreek if you take blood thinners such as Warfarin or Heparin.
- Also, there are herb-drug interactions with the class antidepressants called MAOI's
The moral of the story here is if you are taking medications, double-check and confirm that your herbal supplements are compatible and appropriate for you.
GI Upset: Fenugreek may cause diarrhea and intestinal upset in a small number of people. The odds of this reaction can be minimized by taking the most moderate dose that works for you. Dried herbs can also cause stomach upset because of the amount of fiber they add to your diet. If you are taking fenugreek along with other supplements, be aware of this potential side effect.
Thus, it is more beneficial to take fenugreek as a blend with other herbs, so the possibility of side effects is minimized. For example, in Let There Be Milk! We blend fenugreek, which may cause diarrhea in some people, with Blessed Thistle, an anti-diarrheal. Both herbs aid in the production of breastmilk, making them great companions.
The most likely result from taking fenugreek
The most likely thing that will happen from taking fenugreek seed is that your milk supply will increase! You will make more milk, and have a more forceful letdown.
Remember that if your baby gets fussy, it's probably not so much from the herbs but rather from gorging themselves on the milk! The milk is coming out so fast that they can't help it; they just keep nursing! So, if they are fussy, gassy, and have green bowel movements, it is not because the fenugreek is bad, it's because it worked!
Fenugreek has been with us from the beginning. The herb is not our problem. Our problems, from my perspective, come from our lack of understanding about breastfeeding. And because we are changing and adapting at such a rapid rate in ways that are not healthy. Our grandmothers and foremothers did not have such high rates of diabetes, hypothyroidism, PCOS, and did not take as many antidepressants. Their lives were not perfect, but they were able to breastfeed. Their oceans were not filled with plastic water bottles. Their groundwater was not contaminated with the by-product of fracking. Their air quality was not polluted with exhaust from vehicles, and Monsanto did not spray their crops. Fenugreek has supported us by feeding us and helping us feed our babies for thousands of years.
Remember, you've got this! You come from a long line of capable mothers. You were made for this time. Take a deep breath, hug that sweet baby and let your love and your milk flow