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Research on herbal remedies for increasing breast milk production have found that several natural compounds have the ability to safely stimulate an increase in milk production and thereby increase infant weight and growth.
Researchers from the University of Illinois recently reviewed the evidence for herbal galactogogues – those traditional herbs that can stimulate more milk production, also called lactation. Their review found that several traditional remedies may well have clinical application – given that the herbs were found by clinical research to increase milk production among those tested.
Multiple studies have shown that the traditional Indonesian remedy called Torbangun increases milk production. In one four-week study, mothers receiving the remedy produced an average of 65% more breast milk during the last two weeks of supplementation. Torbangun is a plant with the name Coleus amboinicus Lour – also referred to as Plectranthus amboinicus or Country Borage in Western herbalism. This herbal remedy is typically used in Sumatra by placing fresh leaves of the plant into a soup or stew. The effects of Torbangun were confirmed in animal studies as well.
One of the most widely used herbs to increase lactation among mothers is Fenugreek (Trigonella foenumgraecum). This herb has been shown to increase breast milk production significantly, albeit possibly more moderately as shown in the above study when tested against Torbangun – where it increased lactation by 20%.
Fenugreek contains phytoestrogens, which appear to bind with estrogen receptors and thereby increase not only breast milk production but also sweat gland activity.
Estrogenic activity may also be suspected in another traditional herb used to increase lactation. This Ayurvedic herb, called Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus wild.) – has been used for increasing lactation along with helping regulate other female issues for over a thousand years. Shatavari has been found to contain steroidal saponins – which have been shown to have estrogenic activity in other settings.
Yet another herb that has been used traditionally to increase lactation among mothers is Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum). This herb, also used to promote liver health, contains silymarin. Silymarin has been shown to increase milk production among cows – by five to six liters a day in one study.
And in a human clinical study of Silymarin from Italy in 2008, 50 healthy lactating mothers were given either 420 milligrams a day of Silymarin or a placebo for 63 days. The women who took the Silymarin had an average lactation increase of 85%.
While the University of Illinois researchers found minor faults among some of these studies, they failed to see the bigger picture – that traditional clinical application of an herbal remedy over centuries comes with its own set of controls: That is, each time an herbal remedy is prescribed or passed down to the next generation, it undergoes a clinical evaluation among the patients that have taken the remedy. A traditional healer could not readily retain his or her position among the community if he or she was not able to clearly provide viable treatment. And with the passing down of a remedy from one generation to the next comes a necessary proving among that next generation of patients.
This gradual yet time-tested manner for clinical evaluation of natural remedies has resulted in an almost-perfect record as traditional remedies have met with modern clinical research. Those rare failures have typically been the result of a misapplication of the herb as an extract or otherwise weakened set of active constituents. An in practically every case, the herbal remedy has proven to be safe and easily tolerable by those using it.
Mortel M, Mehta SD. Systematic review of the efficacy of herbal galactogogues. J Hum Lact. 2013 May;29(2):154-62. doi: 10.1177/0890334413477243.
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Di Pierro F, Callegari A, Carotenuto D, Tapia MM. Clinical efficacy, safety and tolerability of BIO-C (micronized Silymarin) as a galactagogue. Acta Biomed. 2008 Dec;79(3):205-10.