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The Side Effects of Fenugreek in Breastfeeding

By Walli Carranza

Sometimes the easiest way to do something is not the best. Fenugreek, an annual herb from Asia, is recommended by many nurses who specialize in helping mothers with breastfeeding as a way to increase breast milk production when an infant's demand is greater than his mother's supply. With hundreds of years of use, it likely is effective but when an herb is used in infancy, short-term and long-term effects must be considered.

Gastrointestinal Side Effects

Almost 50 percent of the content of fenugreek, or Trigonella foenum-graecum, is fiber and in adults this is useful in promoting intestinal regularity. But in the seed are also chemicals that delay gastric emptying and increase the amount of water pulled from into stool, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Advisory on the herb. For an infant, especially one dehydrated already by exposure to a low milk supply, this could produce a dangerous loss of fluid and electrolytes. In most situations this is quickly replaced as the mother's milk supply increases but there are no clinical trials, which prove how often fenugreek is effective in this action. Parents should be aware of fenugreek's ability to cause diarrhea in infants. Stopping use of the herb when this occurs may not be immediately effective and any sign of dehydration, including a failure to produce urine, dry, loose skin or a decrease in the infant's activity, must immediately reported to a physician and it is important that they be told that fenugreek was being taken by the mother.

Decreased Blood Glucose

An infant requires a fairly constant level of blood glucose. This is why he nurses every two to four hours around the clock.

In the March 2007 issue of the "British Journal of Nutrition" Dr. J.M. Hannan and his colleagues at the University of Ulter in Northern Ireland reported that fenugreek improves blood sugar levels in animals with type 2 diabetes mellitus. This is wonderful news for men and women with this disease because, when used along with a program of weight loss through diet and exercise those with the earliest stages of the disease may try adding fenugreek to the diet with little cause for hesitation. It's an herb that adds spice to many dishes and may make simple vegetable preparation more exciting.

But for an infant who's blood sugar is already running low because her mom is not able to produce enough milk this same action could cause hypoglycemia, a condition which can lead to decreased level of consciousness and seizures at its most serious level. But even if the effect is mild repeated hypoglycemia may decrease weight, lower energy and interactivity, and cause subtle changes in brain activity. Again, the mother's milk supply is the critical difference. If she has a good food intake herself and fenugreek is taken in the dose of 600 mg three times a day, as recommended by Lactation Consultants, then there is less reason for concern. But if it is not effective there are many other ways to increase milk supply and a Lactation Consultant or the pediatrician should quickly be consulted.

Estrogen Exposure

That fenugreek elevates the level of estrogen in a woman's body is established and research today is ongoing to see if this herb might be a safe alternative to hormone replacement therapy at the time of menopause, according to the U.S. FDA. What is not known is whether this estrogen then passes to an infant in breast milk in sufficient quantities to do harm, long term. Other estrogen exposures, including the hormones fed to cows to make them produce more milk and the estrogen in birth control pills, have been linked to premature maturation in female children and to demasculinization of the male before birth. Ongoing clinical studies will provide answers for the population in general but each body is different and what effects one mother's child may have no effect on others. Because the other ways to increase milk supply, including getting adequate rest, ensuring a good latch connection between the infant's mouth and the breast and increasing the mother's water intake are options that carry no risk to the infant, these should be tried first. Breastfeeding is a system designed to work. Even mothers who have never given birth and never have breastfed an infant can start producing milk when an infant nurses frequently; proof of the system's resilience. Connecting with other mothers, successful in lactation and supportive can be of great help and almost all U.S. cities and towns have active La Leche Groups for just this purpose.

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