Hey New Moms: You Should Probably Talk to Your Doc Before Trying Fenugreek

Photo: Stocksy / Suzanne Clements
What you probably pictured after deciding to breastfeed: You and your baby, snuggled up in a warm embrace during feeding time. The reality of that image may not be so accurate. Every mom has a different experience with breastfeeding, but to weigh the odds in your favor of producing an abundant milk supply, many moms will tell you to take fenugreek. But...what is that, exactly?

Fenugreek is an herb; the seeds are ground into a spice, or it may be taken as a supplement, most famously to aid breastfeeding. Culinarily, if you eat curries that contain the spice blend garam masala, you’ve had fenugreek. Among some of fenugreek's benefits: It's a known inflammation fighter, and it's a potential galactagogue. (Try saying that three times fast!)  “This is a substance that promotes lactation,” says Caroline West Passerrello, MS, RDN, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The herb is a popular natural remedy for low breast milk supply, and new moms have anecdotally sworn by it for years. But here's what everyone should know before trying it themselves, according to Passerrello.

Are there any actual fenugreek benefits for new moms (or anyone else)?

It’s completely understandable for people to want to make as much milk as possible when breastfeeding. “As a mom who exclusively breast-fed my daughter for four months, I remember wanting to be sure I was, and would continue, producing sufficient milk,” says Passerrello. This can be challenging for some moms—certain factors, like postpartum health issues and medications, can affect a person's milk supply.

However, there are a few things to know before reaching for fenugreek. “Some clinical studies have shown that fenugreek may stimulate lactation, but the evidence is not conclusive,” says Passerrello. One meta-analysis of four studies did conclude that, yes, taking fenugreek increased breastmilk production compared to a placebo, per the journal Phytotherapy Research. But these studies are small (the meta-analysis looked at only five studies, with a total of 122 participants) so again, this isn't conclusive evidence that fenugreek is the golden ticket for lactation.

Fenugreek is sometimes also recommended in order to lower blood sugar in patients with type 2 diabetes, according to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health. However, they call the evidence backing up those claims “weak.” One study, a meta-analysis on 10 trials published in Nutrition Journal, found that people taking fenugreek benefitted from lower blood glucose levels, likely because of the fiber the plant contains. Here’s the catch: the amount of fenugreek needed was at least five grams per day, yet most fenugreek supplements contain around one gram per capsule, with a recommended serving of two. Thus, it's unclear whether it's actually advisable to take a higher amount of the herb per day.

Is taking fenugreek safe?

Generally, yes (especially when it's just part of a spice blend), but there are some exceptions. Per the NIH, people who are pregnant should not take fenugreek supplements. It also may have an estrogenic effect on the body, so people who have hormone-based cancers (like breast or uterine) should avoid it, too. Which is a really good reminder to always check with your doctor before taking any supplement to make sure it's safe to take with any medications you're on or conditions you have—including pregnancy and breastfeeding. And read the label. Interestingly enough, many fenugreek supplements include a warning that says they should not be taken if you’re breastfeeding.

If my doc says it's OK, what's the best way to take fenugreek?

It’s unlikely you’ll get enough fenugreek to potentially increase lactation if you’re simply eating it as part of a spice blend. That’s why a more concentrated source of fenugreek is the way to go. “Anecdotal reports indicate that taking one to two grams of powdered fenugreek or drinking fenugreek tea up to three times daily may increase milk production in lactating women,” says Passerrello.

If you're going the supplement route, Passerrello recommends finding one that’s third-party verified, which helps ensure its purity. You can also find fenugreek as part of a tea blend with other potential galactagogues, like fennel, coriander, anise, and blessed thistle in this Mother’s Milk herbal tea. (It tastes a bit like licorice, thanks to the fennel and anise. At the same time, it may make you or your baby smell like maple syrup, something I’ve experienced on a personal level.) Another option is Earth Mama Organics Milkmaid Tea, which contains fenugreek, plus fennel, red raspberry, milk thistle, stinging nettle, among other herbs.

The bottom line: Fenugreek could help bump up your breast milk production—but because the studies on it are limited, Passerrello says that it's not a guarantee. But if you like the taste (and you have your MD's blessing), it may be worth a try.

Curious about other natural supplements? Here's the 411 on magnesium (and why it's everywhere) and vitamin K.

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