As a breast-feeding mom, one of your main concerns is milk supply.
It’s important to produce enough milk so your baby can thrive. If supply is low, there are prescription drugs that can help, but they may cause negative side effects for you and your baby.
Fenugreek is a natural alternative, but is it safe?
It’s a member of the Fabaceae family, and is a popular culinary herb used in curries. It’s also as an artificial flavoring for maple syrup.
Fenugreek greens are safe to eat, but the seeds are thought to be responsible for most of the herb’s health benefits. Fenugreek is an herbal galactagogue (a substance which increases milk supply).
In addition to increasing lactation, fenugreek is used in alternative medicine to treat:
- loss of appetite
- skin inflammation
- high cholesterol
- stomach problems
- weight loss
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), there’s not enough scientific information showing that fenugreek is effective in treating any condition except for possibly lowering blood sugar.
Fenugreek is often taken in capsule form containing ground fenugreek seeds. It’s also available as a tea or tincture. Fenugreek tea is bitter and may not be as effective as capsules.
According to the NCCIH, the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements like fenugreek as strictly as they do drugs. This means there’s no standardized safe dosage for herbal remedies, and amounts and strength may vary from brand to brand. Herbal supplements may contain dozens of unknown ingredients.
KellyMom reports fenugreek may be used short- or long-term to increase milk supply. In some cases, once supply has increased, you can stop taking fenugreek. Dosages vary by how the herb is prepared. The following dosages are suggestions, but have not been proven by any scientific studies.
- capsules (580 to 610 mg): take two to four capsules, three times daily
- powder or seeds: 1/2 to 1 teaspoon, three times daily alone or mixed with water or juice
- tincture: 1 to 2 milliliters, three times daily
- tea: up to three cups daily
What the Research Says
Most of the evidence supporting fenugreek for milk production is anecdotal.
Despite the lack of research, fenugreek is often the first remedy new moms turn to when milk supply is low. It’s unclear how fenugreek increases milk supply.
One study evaluated the effects of fenugreek maternal tea on breast milk production and infant weight gain soon after birth. Sixty-six mother-infant pairs were assigned to three groups. One group received fenugreek tea, one group a placebo, and one group served as the study’s control group. On the third day, infant weight loss was significantly lower in the group who drank the tea compared to the placebo and control groups. In addition, the average breast milk volume of the tea drinking group was much higher than the other groups.
Kathleen E. Huggins, R.N., M.S., writes in an article that she has worked with at least 1,200 women who have used fenugreek. Most reported an increase in milk production within 24 to 72 hours.
Fenugreek Safety and Side Effects
Fenugreek is listed by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe” when used as a food additive.
According to a Gaia Herb report, fenugreek is the most popular and widely used galactagogue in the world. It has a long history of safety in the alternative medicine world. However, like many herbal remedies, fenugreek may cause side effects like diarrhea, stomach upset, and gas. The risk of side effects increases if you use more than the recommended dose of 8 grams daily.
Fenugreek may lower blood sugar levels. If you have hypoglycemia or diabetes, you should not use fenugreek.
Continued use of fenugreek may cause you and your baby to give off a maple syrup odor in your sweat and urine. This should go away after you stop taking the herb.
Fenugreek may cause allergic reaction. It’s in the same family as peanuts and chickpeas, so if you’re allergic to either, you should avoid fenugreek. Symptoms of allergic reaction include wheezing, dizziness, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, and rash or hives.
Your bleeding risk may increase while taking fenugreek, and your body’s blood clotting abilities may be impacted. If you have blood clotting or bleeding disorders, fenugreek is not a safe choice.
You shouldn’t take fenugreek if you have a hormone-sensitive cancer. According to Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center, fenugreek increased the growth of breast cancer cells in vitro.
Since fenugreek is a uterine stimulant and may cause contractions, you shouldn’t use it if you are pregnant.
Most fenugreek side effects are mild. However, since research has not definitively proven fenugreek safely increases breast milk, Drugs.com lists fenugreek as “likely unsafe” for nursing mothers. However, lactation specialists and alternative medicine practitioners still routinely recommend the herb.
Fenugreek Safety for Baby
The extent of transmission of fenugreek in breast milk is unknown. It’s possible your baby may experience fenugreek side effects while breast-feeding. While rare, these may include:
- loose stools or diarrhea
- upset stomach
- maple syrup odor
- allergic reaction
A study published in Clinical Lactation evaluated the effects of fenugreek on milk production in mothers of preterm babies (less than 31 weeks). No health changes or negative side effects occurred in the mother or babies.
At least one case of maple syrup disease was suspected in an otherwise healthy infant whose mother took a paste made of fenugreek seeds during early labor.
Fenugreek Drug Interactions
Fenugreek may interact with some drugs and other herbs, including:
- drugs that help control blood sugar like Amaryl, Actos, Avandia, and Glucotrol
- medications that slow blood clotting like Coumadin, Plavix, heparin, ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen
- antidepressants (MAOIs) like Marplan, Nardil, Emsam, and Parnate
Taking medications or herbs at the same time as fenugreek may cause delayed absorption.
Can fenugreek safely increase supply while breast-feeding? Maybe. Moms have successfully used fenugreek to promote milk production with little or no side effects for centuries.
Due to the lack of scientific evidence, the efficacy and safety of fenugreek on lactation can’t be confirmed. Since there’s a risk of side effects for you and your baby, you should contact your doctor or lactation specialist before using fenugreek.
If you or your baby develop concerning symptoms like allergic reaction, tummy troubles, or symptoms of low blood sugar, stop taking fenugreek and contact your doctor.