Herbs, Breastfeeding May Be a Harmful Mix

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 2, 2000 (Chicago) -- Breastfeeding mothers often seek "natural" remedies, but sometimes those natural approaches can be harmful to themselves and their babies, according to one expert speaking at a special session on herbs and breastfeeding at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

That expert is Ruth A. Lawrence, MD, professor of pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York. She tells WebMD that most herbal remedies have "1,000 years of hearsay, but no good science" behind them.

For example, the herb fenugreek is often touted for its ability to increase breast milk supply, but Lawrence says some women taking it claim it had no effect, while others say it had too strong of an effect. Moreover, she says there isn't even any evidence to confirm that it affects breast milk supply.

But what is known about fenugreek is that it can cause low blood sugar and high blood pressure in the mother. And it has been associated with increased colic and diarrhea in nursing babies.

Lawrence says that in the case of fenugreek, it is highly unlikely that its claims will even be tested in a worthwhile study because of its most striking feature. "It makes everything smell like maple syrup. In fact, women are instructed to take three capsules containing ground up fenugreek seed three times a day until they get this maple syrup smell. Of course, it is passed to the baby, so the infant smells of maple syrup as well," Lawrence says. Therefore, it would be hard to develop a placebo -- or dummy pill -- with the same feature to test fenugreek against.

Of even greater concern, Lawrence says, is the use of comfrey ointment to treat sore nipples. Although this is a favorite recommendation of many herbalists, the comfrey can be passed to the infant. It has been associated with liver damage in infants, she explains. "Canada has banned comfrey for this reason, but it is still available [in the U.S.]."

Lawrence suggests that women who are interested in a so-called natural remedy for sore nipples should be "encouraged to use purified lanolin. Physicians can point out that this comes from the skin of sheep and is completely natural."

Continued

The growing use of herbs by nursing mothers has caught the attention of author Arlene Eisenberg, who tells WebMD that she plans to add a section on herbs in the next edition of What to Expect the First Year,one of the best-selling books in the What to Expect series authored by Eisenberg and her daughters, Heidi Murkhoff and Sandee Hathaway, BSN. Eisenberg says her message will be "natural doesn't equal safe."

While Lawrence says that nursing mothers should be steered away from most herbs, she says there are some exceptions.

"There are some teas that I can recommend for women who want a nice herbal tea. Chicory, peppermint, orange spice, and red bush tea are all fine. Rose hips is an especially good tea because it has a very high concentration of vitamin C," Lawrence says.

Finally, she says, doctors should caution nursing mothers who have postpartum depression that self-medicating with St. John's wort might be risky. St. John's wort contains a type of drug called a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Some serotonin reuptake inhibitors have been shown to slightly affect infant weight gain. Because the FDA does not regulate herbs, there is no way to determine how much of this drug is passed to the infant.

Eisenberg, who attended the meeting seeking material for the new book, says that she thinks "mothers are just using these things without asking. They don't realize that these herbs and so-called natural substances can act just like any other drugs."

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