Milk Thistle to Increase Breast Milk When You're Breastfeeding

The leaves of the milk thistle plant.
The white veins of the milk thistle plant symbolize breast milk. Anna Yu/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Women have been using herbs to stimulate and increase the production of breast milk for thousands of years. One of these natural remedies is milk thistle. But, what is milk thistle? Does it actually help breastfeeding mothers make more breast milk, and is it safe? Here's what you need to know about this legendary herb. 

What Is Milk Thistle?

Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a tall, purple flowering plant with prickly spines.

Originally from the Mediterranean region, milk thistle has a long history of use in medicine and healing. For centuries, this plant has been used to treat health problems of the liver and gallbladder. It's also a well-known galactagogue that breastfeeding mothers take to help increase their supply of breast milk.

Milk Thistle and Breastfeeding

Milk thistle has been linked to breastfeeding for a very long time. Also known as Saint Mary's Thistle and Our Lady's thistle, this herb is a plant of legend. Stories from long ago suggest that the leaves of the milk thistle plant came to have white veins running through them when the milk from the breast of Mary, The Virgin Mother splashed onto the plant. To some, these white veins symbolize breast milk, and it's believed that when a breastfeeding mother uses this herb, it will lead to an increase in her breast milk supply.

Milk Thistle and Breast Milk Supply

Beyond the legends, milk thistle has been used with positive results by breastfeeding mothers in India and Europe for generations.

And, although there is no true scientific evidence that milk thistle can help a nursing mother to make more breast milk, it has been shown to increase the milk production in dairy cows. It is also believed that the plant estrogens found in milk thistle could be one of the reasons some women report making more breast milk when they take this herb.

 

How Breastfeeding Women Can Use Milk Thistle to Make More Breast Milk

Milk Thistle Tea: You can make a tea from the seeds of the milk thistle plant and drink it two to three times a day. Just place one teaspoon of crushed, ground, or chopped milk thistle seeds into 8 ounces (240 ml) of boiling water. Let it sit or steep for 10 to 20 minutes, and then enjoy. 

Milk Thistle Supplements: Milk thistle supplements come in capsules, soft gels, powder, and a liquid extract. It is available online and in health food or vitamin stores. If you choose to use an herbal supplement, be sure to buy it from a reputable source and follow all the directions for that particular herbal product. You should also talk to your doctor or a lactation consultant for the correct dosing information.

Milk Thistle as Food: Once you remove the spines, you can eat every part of the milk thistle plant. The seeds can be roasted or used to make tea, the leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, and the buds can be enjoyed similar to tiny artichokes.

Breastfeeding Teas and Lactation Supplements: Milk thistle is a common ingredient found in some of the already prepared nursing teas or lactation supplements that are commercially available.

It is often combined with other breastfeeding herbs such as fenugreek, fennel, goat's rue, marshmallow root, and verbena.

Health Benefits

  • Silymarin, an ingredient found in milk thistle, can help the body rebuild and repair the cells of the liver.
     
  • Milk thistle is used to detoxify and cleanse the liver.
     
  • This herb may help to prevent liver damage if it is given right after certain types of poisons have been taken into the body.
     
  • It is believed to be helpful for people who have jaundicecirrhosis or hepatitis since it can decrease the swelling of the liver.
     
  • Milk thistle may be useful in lowering blood sugar levels for people with type 2 diabetes.
     

Warnings and Side Effects

  • Always consult your doctor, a lactation consultant, or an herbal specialist before taking any herbs especially if you're pregnant or breastfeeding. Many herbs are just like medicine, and they can be harmful if you do not take them as directed. Herbs can also interfere with other medications that you may be taking.
     
  • Milk thistle should not be confused with blessed thistle which is an entirely different plant.
     
  • Allergic reactions to milk thistle are rare. However, if you suffer from allergies to ragweed, daisies, marigolds, or chrysanthemums you should not use milk thistle. It is a member of the same plant family.
     
  • Milk thistle is generally considered to be a safe herb. The most common side effects are mild and stomach related. When it's taken in excessive amounts, loose bowel movements, stomach upset, nausea, and vomiting are possible. 
     
  • Milk thistle has been used to cleanse the liver and detoxify the body. During the process of cleansing, toxins from inside your body are released into your bloodstream so that they can be removed. When these toxins are in your blood, they can enter your breast milk and pass on to your baby. If you have toxins stored in your liver from heavy smoking, alcohol, or the use of drugs, you should not use milk thistle while you're breastfeeding.
     
  • Do not take milk thistle if you use the seizure medication Dilantin (phenytoin).
     
  • Milk thistle can interfere with birth control pills making them less effective. It can also cause problems if you're taking antipsychotic drugs, antianxiety drugs, certain cancer medications, or blood thinners. Make sure you talk to your doctor about any medications that you're taking before you use milk thistle.   

Other Ways to Increase Your Supply

Milk thistle and other breastfeeding herbs tend to help some women increase a low milk supply. However, these treatments do not work for everyone. Other actions you can take to stimulate your body and help increase your breast milk supply include breastfeeding more often, breastfeeding for a longer period of time at each feeding, and using a breast pump after or between breastfeedings.

When to Seek Help

If you believe that your breast milk supply is low and the natural and herbal treatments do not seem to be helping, it's time to ask for help. See your doctor or a lactation consultant. The faster you can find out why you're not making enough breast milk, the faster you can fix the issue and get back on track to breastfeeding successfully.

Sources:

Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Protocol Committee. ABM clinical protocol# 9: use of galactogogues in initiating or augmenting the rate of maternal milk secretion (First revision January 2011). Breastfeeding Medicine. 2011 Feb 1;6(1):41-9.

Ehrlich, Steven D. NMD. Milk Thistle. University of Maryland Medical Center. 2014.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Milk Thistle. National Institutes for Health. 2016.

Tedesco D, Tava A, Galletti S, Tameni M, Varisco G, Costa A, Steidler S. Effects of Silymarin, A Natural Hepatoprotector, in Periparturient Dairy Cows. Journal of Dairy Science. 2004; 87 (7). 2239-2247.

Zuppa A, Sindico P, Orchi C, Carducci C, Cardiello V, Romagnoli R, Catenazzi P. Safety and Efficacy of Galactagogues: Substances that Induce, Maintain, and Increase Breast Milk Production. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science. 2010; 13 (2). 162-174.

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