What is Fenugreek and Can it Help Your Breastfeeding?

A bit about fenugreek and the breastfeeding diet

Introduction

Fenugreek is an herb long-used in alternative medicine and which is believed to have health benefits for the nursing mother. Taken as a supplement or eaten in a well-balanced diet, fenugreek can be a helpful herb to meet your elevated health and breastfeeding needs. Here, we’ll unpack the pros and cons of this herb and discuss how it can affect you as a nursing mother.

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What is Fenugreek?

Fenugreek is an annual herb / legume used in Chinese and Indian homeopathic medicine. Both the seeds and leaves are used in various ways in cooking and the leaves are used as a vegetable in India. The plant has yellowish/off-white flowers, seed pods, and is native to the mediterranean area and to Asia. The scientific name is Trigonella foenum-graecum.

The use of fenugreek, medicinally and in the diet can be traced back to Biblical times. It can be used as a spice, thickening agent, and in products such as soap or shampoo.

Fenugreek has been used for centuries across Asia and India, but is starting to be more commonly used in other parts of the world. There are implications that this herb can help lactating mothers by stimulating and increasing milk production, though the research at this point is a bit thin.

We thought a brief introduction and providing some resources would be helpful to lactating mothers who have concerns over milk production or who have had difficulty with this in the past. It turns out–fenugreek has a gigantic list of uses both medicinally to treat a myriad of conditions or as a general dietary supplement for health. But these claims cannot be taken simply at face value. Look to the available research, the history, and the reported side effects before making a decision about how and when to use this pungent bitter herb.

Nutritional Information (Information from Healthline)

One tablespoon (11.1 grams) of whole fenugreek seeds contains 35 calories and several nutrients (2Trusted Source):

  • Fiber: 3 grams
  • Protein: 3 grams
  • Carbs: 6 grams
  • Fat: 1 gram
  • Iron: 20% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Manganese: 7% of the DV
  • Magnesium: 5% of the DV

Benefits of Fenugreek

Although more studies need to be done, this plant has stood the test of time in many countries for many uses. The following is a list taken from WebMD on the benefits fenugreek may have on health. As you can see the uses are wide and variable. 

  • loss of appetite
  • upset stomach
  • constipation
  • inflammation of the stomach (gastritis)
  • diabetes
  • painful menstruation
  • menopause
  • polycystic ovary syndrome
  • arthritis
  • poor thyroid function
  • obesity
  • “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis)
  • high blood levels of certain fats including cholesterol and triglycerides
  • kidney ailments
  • a vitamin deficiency disease called beriberi
  • mouth ulcers
  • boils
  • bronchitis
  • cellulitis
  • tuberculosis
  • chronic coughs
  • chapped lips
  • baldness
  • cancer
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • exercise performance
  • Some men use fenugreek for hernia, erectile dysfunction (ED), male infertility, and other male problems. Both men and women use fenugreek to improve sexual interest.
  • Women who are breast-feeding sometimes use fenugreek to promote milk flow.
  • Fenugreek is sometimes used as a poultice to treat local pain and swelling (inflammation), muscle pain, pain and swelling of lymph nodes (lymphadenitis), pain in the toes (gout), wounds, leg ulcers, and eczema.
  • In manufacturing, fenugreek extracts are used in soaps and cosmetics.

How does Fenugreek affect breastfeeding?

Fenugreek is used to help boost the production of milk in lactating mothers. It does pass from the breast milk to the infant but is not believed to be harmful. Fenugreek is commonly used to stimulate milk production (along with adequate breast stimulation) and then tapered off or eliminated once the milk supply is well-established.

Studies have indicated that fenugreek may help to stimulate milk production as well as increase milk production which can help to get breastfeeding established and help in those crucial first few weeks of needed weight gain for your infant. You can read about a few of those studies in the Healthline article Fenugreek: An Herb with Impressive Health Benefits, which briefly highlights a few of those studies and how they were conducted.

WebMD discusses the herb and how it is believed to work (by slowing the absorption of sugars in the stomach and stimulating insulin) but does not make clear the link for how it works in regards to breast milk production. Some have speculated that since it stimulates the sweat glands and milk glands are similar, that this may be the connection.

Incorporating fenugreek into your breastfeeding diet

Where can I find fenugreek?

Many women today take fenugreek in a pill form (ground seeds placed in capsules) which can be found at most vitamin and nutrition stores, supermarkets, and natural foods stores.

Fresh leaves can be difficult to find in the US. They may be found in the frozen foods section or in Asian grocery stores. You can also find them online. The same goes for fenugreek seeds.

Is fenugreek safe?

Fenugreek is listed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration on the GRAS list (Generally Recognized As Safe). However, there is limited scientific data on its use in nursing mothers and their infants. The “reputation” of fenugreek as helpful for various ailments and uses, including milk production, relies largely on the widespread and long history of use in multiple countries.

Because the research is lacking, it is hard to say for certain whether or not fenugreek does all the things it is claimed to do. Studies do imply that fenugreek is a helpful galactagogue. A galactagogue, as defined, is a substance (synthetic, plant-derived, or endogenous) that promotes lactation in humans and other animals. They may be used to treat low milk supply.

Herbal Safety for Nursing Moms provides these two summaries from medical professional and author Ruth A. Lawrence, MD and author Frank Nice.

1.  Ruth A. Lawrence, MD (author of Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession):

  • Avoid the pharmacologically active herbal teas. Drink any herbal teas only in moderation.
  • Limit intake of any herbal preparation that combines several active ingredients.
  • Always check the label. Even vitamins and simple echinacea may contain herbs that should not be used by breastfeeding mothers.
  • Use only reliable brands that have ingredients and concentrations clearly marked on the label, as well as the expiration date and the name of the manufacturer and distributor.
  • Be sure to check with your physician before taking any natural remedy, since it could interact with other medications you take or need.
    (source)

1.  Frank Nice, Herbals and Breastfeeding:

  • The nursing mother should take oral medications immediately following nursing, or right before the infant’s longest sleep to avoid nursing exposure to a drug at its peak plasma level.
  • The nursing mother should take the lowest dose possible. She should always avoid extra-strength or long-acting formulations. Combination products present a special hazard.
  • The nursing mother should know the use and side effects for all constituents of a formulation before using it. She should be aware of potential side effects and she should be able not only to monitor herself for side effects, but also to monitor the nursling for these side effects or unusual changes in behavior.
    (source)

As always, it is important to compare what you have learned to the advice of your personal doctor. Your doctor could have crucial information for you with regards to medications you are already taking, allergies or expected complications.

Side effects and risks of using fenugreek

There are reported side effects you need to consider and be aware of when it comes to ingesting fenugreek.

Note: NCBI’s (National Center for Biotechnology Information) summary on Fenugreek is a great resource that summarizes some of the research and data on how fenugreek affects nursing mothers and their infants.

Known risks to infants:

  • No adverse effects were noted in the studies mentioned by NCBI

Other possible risks: 

  • Gastrointestinal side effects such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and flatulence
  • Liver toxicity has been reported, both taken alone and in herbal combinations that included fenugreek. (Source)
  • Can have allergy risks
  • Can also interact with warfarin to cause bleeding (Source)
  • May cause lowering blood sugar
  • Most commonly reported side effect women reported in This Study was an “imparting an odor of maple syrup to the urine, sweat, feces, and possibly breastmilk by the sotolon in fenugreek”
  • Can cause uterine contractions – do NOT use if you’re pregnant

It is also important to note that dietary supplements do not have to be proven to work–only that they are safe. The above-referenced study discusses this and it is very important to understand this when looking for any kind of dietary supplement for yourself, whether you are seeking a galactagogue ( a breast milk stimulating substance) or vitamin or other supplements.

Dietary supplements do not require extensive pre-marketing approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Manufacturers are responsible to ensure the safety, but do not need to prove the safety and effectiveness of dietary supplements before they are marketed. Dietary supplements may contain multiple ingredients, and differences are often found between labeled and actual ingredients or their amounts. A manufacturer may contract with an independent organization to verify the quality of a product or its ingredients, but that does not certify the safety or effectiveness of a product. Because of the above issues, clinical testing results on one product may not be applicable to other products. More detailed information about dietary supplements is available elsewhere on the LactMed Website. (Source)

How do I ingest fenugreek? Do I have to cook it?

Fenugreek has a sweet yet bitter flavor with a hint of maple syrup flavor. Both the seeds and leaves can be ingested cooked or raw but some preparation helps with the bold flavor.

The seeds can be ground into a powder to use as a spice. It is used in chicken curry, lentil stews, Indian dishes, pickling mixes, meat marinades, and slow-cooked sauces. The seeds are very bitter, so soak the seeds overnight. Then, toast the seeds and incorporate them with other spices like you would clove or cardamom. (Source)

Dry roasted seeds can be eaten as a snack or crushed to use in cooking dishes.

Fenugreek can also be taken in tea form but some find the taste to be somewhat bitter.

Fresh and dried leaves can be used in finishing dishes or salads.

Can be taken in a supplement.

Fenugreek recipes

How to make Fenugreek tea–called Methi Tea

  • Using a mortar and pestle, grind 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds into a grainy powder form.
  • Boil 1 cup water and pour it into a bowl
  • Add the fenugreek powder, 1 teaspoon of honey as a sweetener, and any other spices such as basil or regular tea leaves
  • Cover and steep for 2-3 minutes
  • Strain and serve

Recipes

Lentil Meatballs with Indian Fenugreek Sauce
Methi Murg – Methi Chicken – Chicken Curry With Fenugreek
Potato subzi with Dried Fenugreek and Fennel!
Methi Gobi: Indian Cauliflower With Ginger and Fenugreek
Fenugreek seeds (Dana methi) Multigrain Parathas
Creamy Curry Fenugreek Sauce
Healthy Fenugreek Tea – How to make Fenugreek Seed Tea
Coconut Rice With Fenugreek Seeds

Videos on Fenugreek preparation and use

How to use Fenugreek/Methi. Indian Recipe
Murgh Methi – Easy Chicken recipe with Fenugreek
How to Use Fenugreek | Indian Food
How to Make Tea With Fenugreek Seeds: Snacks & Drinks

For further reading:

What Supplies Do You Need to Prepare for Breastfeeding? | Babienet Blog
The Bonding Relationship of Breastfeeding | Babienet Blog
Facts Women Breastfeeding Should Know | Connecting Parents | Babienet Blog

This article is brought to you by the blogging contributors at Babienet Parenting Community, a community of caring parents just like you! We welcome you to share your journey with us.

Christina M. Ward

Babienet blog contributor

Mother and grandmother

What is Fenugreek and Can it Help Your Breastfeeding? Is an article providing helpful information about fenugreek, its use to stimulate milk in lactating mothers, potential side effects, and recipes.

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