Fenugreek: One Remedy for Low Milk Production

by Kathleen E. Huggins, RN, MS

Highly regarded by Hippocrates and other Greek and Roman physicians, fenugreek is one of the oldest medicinal herbs. Ancient physicians mixed the seeds with water or made ointments to treat external wounds and abscesses. The herb was also used internally to treat fevers and respiratory and intestinal ailments as well as to ease childbirth. Indian women ate fenugreek seeds to increase their milk production.

Fenugreek was brought to the New World as a folk remedy by early settlers. It became the major ingredient of Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, a popular 19th century cure-all for female complaints.

Modern "Medicine"

Today, fenugreek is used by natural healers as a basis for poultices and plasters for the treatment of wounds, boils and rashes. It is recommended for internal use to treat coughs and bronchitis as well as to reduce mucus production and help ease asthma and sinus problems. Warm fenugreek gargles are said to soothe sore throats. Fenugreek is taken by Egyptian women to ease menstrual pain. Hilba (fenugreek) tea is a popular remedy used for stomach cramps and gastric upset. In China, the herb is used to treat male impotence.

Studies have shown that fenugreek reduces cholesterol in animals. Animal research and recent studies on people with type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes show that the herb reduces glucose levels. Researchers have confirmed the anti-inflammatory effects of fenugreek, thus adding credibility to claims of the herb's beneficial effect in treating wounds, arthritis and other
inflammations. Experiments on the development of oral contraceptives using diosgenin, a component of the fenugreek seed, are underway. 

The maple aroma and flavor of fenugreek has led to its use as a spice in baked goods, chutneys, confections and imitation maple syrup. The herb is very nutritious, being high in protein, vitamin C, niacin and potassium. Ground seeds are used in curries. In Greece, boiled or raw seeds are eaten with honey. Young seedlings and other portions of the plant are eaten as vegetables. In India, fenugreek is eaten fresh as a salad. 

A Lactation Aide

In 1945, an Egyptian researcher reported that fenugreek is a potent stimulator of breastmilk production. In fact, its use was associated with increases in milk production of as much as 900%. The mechanism of action is unknown. Rima Jensen, MD, suggests that fenugreek may affect milk production because the breast is a modified sweat gland, and the herb is known to
stimulate sweat production. 

We have been recommending fenugreek for six years whenever a mother's milk production is determined to be low. To date, we have worked with at least 1200 women who have taken the herb. Many of these mothers began by changing the frequency and duration of breastfeeding: In some cases the use of a fully automatic breast pump was necessary when it was determined that the infant did not sufficiently drain the breast. A significant number of mothers who took the herb, however, did not need other interventions. These included mothers who were exclusively pumping for non-nursing infants and mothers who were feeding often whose babies sufficiently drained the breast.

Nearly all of the mothers who take fenugreek report an increase in milk production, generally within 24 to 72 hours after starting to take the herb. Most mothers have found that the herb can be discontinued once milk production is stimulated to an appropriate level. Adequate production is usually maintained as long as sufficient breast stimulation and emptying continues.

In our experience, two or three capsules of fenugreek three times a day is the recommended dosage. The suggested dosage on the label of some brands, however, is one capsule three times a day. Mothers should know that taking such a small amount of fenugreek does not seem to improve milk production. We have used fenugreek successfully in a variety of situations including relactation, for mothers who have had breast surgery with surgical incisions around the areola , and for mothers who are exclusively pumping for non-nursing infants. We have observed some improvement in the milk production of mothers with
classic bilateral insufficient glandular tissue but never enough to eliminate the need for supplementation.

Few women report adverse effects with fenugreek, although some may notice a maple-like odor to their urine and sweat. Among our clients who have used fenugreek, two or three have developed diarrhea, which quickly subsided when dosage was either decreased or the herb was discontinued. Two asthmatic mothers felt that fenugreek aggravated asthma symptoms, an interesting effect, since fenugreek is thought to be a remedy for asthma. One mother with diabetes, who used an insulin pump, noticed little change in her insulin requirements. To date, we have not observed or heard of any side effects in the infants whose mothers have taken fenugreek. .

We have found fenugreek to be a potent stimulator of breastmilk production that appears to be safe for mother and baby. It is relatively easy to obtain and is inexpensive; however, mothers should be made aware of its potential to cause diarrhea. Mothers with diabetes should use caution because of the herb's tendency to lower blood glucose levels. Women with asthma should be informed of the possibility of increased asthma symptoms. We hope the experience of our lactation clinic and other lactation practices that use fenugreek will motivate the research necessary to establish more scientific evidence of the herb's effectiveness in increasing milk production.

Is it All Fenugreek to You?

Fenugreek (triigonella foenum-graecum), an annual herb native to Asia and Southeast Europe, is cultivated worldwide. It is a member of the pea family. Fenugreek grows to about 18 inches and resembles a large clover with white pea-like flowers that produce six-inch-long seed [pods that resemble string beans but grow upright. Each pod contains 10 to 20 light brown, hard,
oblong, flat seeds.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides only general guidelines on natural herbs, and fenugreek is included in FDA's list of herbs generally regarded as safe. There has been no formal research on fenugreek, but an increasing amount of observational and anecdotal evidence points to its efficacy. Because Fenugreek may be a uterine stimulant, however, it should be avoided during pregnancy. 

Fenugreek capsules containing ground seeds can be purchased from most health food stores. Capsules typically contain either 580 or 610 mg. A bottle of 100 capsules costs about $6 - $8. Some health food stores and food co-ops sell the capsules in bulk form. Fenugreek tea can be used, but teas are considered less potent than capsules. Fenugreek tea has a somewhat
unpleasant bitter taste.

Kathleen Huggins is a Director of the Breastfeeding Clinic at San Luis Obispo General Hospital, CA. She is the author of The Nursing Mothers's Companion and co-author of The Nursing Mother's Guide to Weaning.


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