Galactagogues are simply foods, herbs or pharmaceutical drugs that promote the flow of a mother’s milk.

Ten steps to successful Breastfeeding (WHO)The day after my son was born, the hospital lactation consultant dropped by to tell me that I needed to top up with formula because I wouldn’t be able to make enough milk for him. It sounds brutal and blunt because it was. At the time I didn’t know that all the reasons her “diagnosis” was misguided and unhelpful so I delved into the world of galactagogues to help with low supply. Five months on, and Baba continues to be exclusively breastfed with comfortable weight gain. As an aside, I think it’s wrong to encourage pregnant women to breastfeed and tell them all the benefits but then provide no helpful support when we hit a roadbump (as most people would with any new skill).

Galactagogues are only part of the solution for boosting supply and should always be used alongside the support of a good, experienced lactation professional who can help with latch, technique etc. There’s also great information available from Breastfeeding Inc that can help with a range of breastfeeding issues.

Here is my experience with some of the common galactagogues:

  • Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) seed is probably the most common and oldest documented medicinal herbs and is used for humans and cows throughout the world. Kellymom has summarised the dosage recommendations here. It is usually taken with blessed thistle and the two work well together. My own experience is that it worked well at 7g per day to improve supply but the gastric upset was so severe for both baby and me that we did not continue.
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is often quoted as a galactagogue but in face it will not boost supply but will improve the milk ejection (let down). It’s a sweet tasting tea that helps with gas and digestion and tummy upsets so I’ve continued using it for these purposes rather than to boost supply
  • Similar to fennel, caraway is another anti-colic and anti-flatulent herb. It is often combined with other herbs when used as a galactagogue. I’ve enjoyed it with fennel as a tea.
  • Moringa (Moringa oleifera)– when I stopped fenugreek, I started taking moringa powder. It’s a good source of vitamins and minerals but more importantly it is well proven to boost milk supply. In my experience, it has been very effective.
  • Milk Thistle (Silybum Marianum) is usually associated with liver cleansing and gall bladder but it can also be used as a galactagogue. I’ve took this in the initial three weeks as a tincture in combination with Shatavari (Asparagus Racemosus), another popular galagtagogue
  • Nettle (Urtica dioica) – I’ve been taking dried nettle throughout pregnancy for its high iron content (and helps improve the body’s ability to use iron) and continued after birth. It is often used in combination with other herbs as a galactagogue. I’m a big fan of nettles and find that there are very few problems that can’t be helped with some nettles. It really is a wonder herb.
  • Red raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus) is another favourite of mine and was something I was taking when there was new growth on our raspberry stems but as they’ve aged, I haven’t continued. It in itself is not a galactagogue but makes a nutritious and tasty tea and helps with let down.
  • Oats can be used as a food for lactating mothers. I’m not convinced of its galactagogue properties but porridge, breads, cookies etc are all good sources of healthy energy. I use oat groats soaked overnight rather than oat flakes to get the nutrition of the whole grain
  • And finally I tried taking Brewers Yeast as a powder and in cookies but again, the gastric upset was severe and not worth it.

So to summarise, I initially took milk thistle and shatavari as a tincture for three weeks to get things started. I tried both fenugreek and brewers yeast but found them difficult to digest. Now am taking dried nettle leaf, dried nettle seeds, oats, moringa powder and fennel/caraway as my milk boosting programme. I also take an Omega3 to help with the fat content of the milk and for general health.

On the anti-galactagogues, I’ve avoided ingesting mint and sage as well as using cabbage leaves topically (which is recommended by an astounding number of people).

There can be many reasons for low supply. A good latch and proper drainage are the basis for improving supply. There’s no substitute for proper support from knowledgeable and caring lactation professionals  but the herbs can definitely help.



Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica)

Family: Urticacaeae

Stinging nettle is a plant that is often avoided and steered clear of.  And yet this is a treasure of a plant that grows abundantly around here. It can be found in woods, roadsides, field edges, gardens. Well practically everywhere. Something that grows abundantly here is a rarity in other places and that tells us something about how it suits this climate and this people. An 11th century manuscript called the Lacnunga refers to the healing properties of nine powerful herbs (nine sacred herbs) and nettle is one of those. But somewhere along the way it fell out of favour. In these parts it was said that nettles were used in the 1840s when the potato crops failed and afterwards were associated with poverty and starvation. That may be so but it’s time for a revival now.

The parts used mostly depends on the time of year: leaves in spring, flowers in early summer and seeds and roots in autumn.

Just focussing on the leaves for now, the top growth of the plant is collected in early spring.  Once it flowers, the leaves are probably too tough for cooking and older leaves further down contain calcium atoms (cystoliths) that can irritate the kidneys. However if you are not foraging from the wild you can cut back the plants to get several crops of young tender leaves throughout the year.


It is more appropriate that nature has given this plant the protection of stinging exterior. Without it, we should probably never have the opportunity to benefit from its healing power. Animals, with their instinctive knowledge of what is good for them, would not leave us even one leaf (Dr Vogel)

There are hairs on the underside of the leaves and when brushed, those hairs break and inject the chemicals that make the burning sensation. Even though there is formic acid (same as a bee sting) in the leaves, the amount contained in the leaves is not enough to cause the stinging effect but a combination of acetylcholine and formic acid, histamine, serotonin causes the sting. Some people don’t mind the sting at all but use rubber gloves to protect hands if that is not your thing.

Nettle Nutritional Profile (per 100g of dried plant): Calcium: 2900 mg, Chromium: 0.39 mg, Dietary Fibre: 43.0%, Iron: 4.2 mg, Magnesium: 860 mg, Manganese: 0.78 mg, Niacin: 5.20 mg, Phosphorous: 447 mg, Potassium: 1750 mg, Protein: 25.2%, Riboflavin: 0.43 mg, Selenium: 0.22 mg, Vitamin A: 15,700 IU, Vitamin C: 83.0 mg, Zinc: 0.47 mg  (Source: Nutritional Herbology: A Reference Guide to Herbs by Mark Pedersen)

The list of uses of nettle is so long, it runs the risk of sounding like a miracle cure infomercial but there’s no point in shortening the list just to make it seem more credible. This really is a tremendous plant with a huge array of benefits.

  • The early spring leaves are used as a blood tonic, liver detoxification and spring nourishment – ideal after a winter of heavy foods. It rivals spirulina, wheatgrass etc as a superfood and its abundance in our hedgerows and ditches shouldn’t be seen as an indicator of its potency. It just means that this superfood is readily available to everyone without a high price tag.
  • With its high iron content it treats anaemia and cleverly it improves the body’s ability to use iron.
  • Nettle leaf combines well with raspberry leaf during pregnancy and throughout a woman’s life (especially for excessive menstruation). Post-pregnancy, it regulates the flow of breast milk production (amphoteric effect).
  • Nettle leaf is used to treat skin disorders like psoriasis and eczema and rashes in general that result of poor metabolic function)
  • Liquid fertiliser – some say not to do this while in seed or they’ll germinate everywhere. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing!
  • Antihistamine effect on hayfever and asthma
  • Reduces blood sugar levels and stimulates circulation.
  • Dialates peripheral blood vessels and promotes elimination of urine which helps lower blood pressure
  • When rubbed or beaten onto the skin (urtification), intense irritation occurs which brings more blood to the area and removes the rheumatic toxins. This has also been proposed for sprains, sciatica, repetitive strain injuries.

Heat will deactivate the acid so poor boiling water over the fresh leaves to make a drink that is not sweet but tastes smooth and nourishing and is strangely addictive. The leaves are traditionally used to make a soup but wherever you would normally use spinach in a recipe, it can be replaced with nettle leaves. For me, nettle tea is a drink I enjoy so much that I don’t like to mix it with other ingredients in cooking. If you’re hesitant about nettles or don’t like the taste of tea then nettle pesto or nettle soup might be a good starting point.

Because the spring new growth is best for teas, it’s a good idea to pick some extra leaves in spring and dry them for later. Pick early in the morning when the leaves are naturally dry. I use a dehydrator but you could just lay them out on brown paper in an airy room.

As an aside, the nettle seeds at this time of year are a remarkable source of vitality and particularly good for the kidneys and adrenals. For people who feel worn out and tired and are stressed by long to-do lists, nettle seeds will work wonders. I’ll write a separate post on nettle seeds, because collecting and drying need a description in itself.

Chamomile: German and Roman

The chamomile harvest is in full swing over here. This year I have the two varieties of the herb that are grown for medicinal use: German (Matricaria chamomilla) and Roman (Chamaemelum nobile).

The chamomilGerman Chamomile2e plant is used for making herb beers and for the treatment of toothaches, earache, neuralgia as well as swelling and skin conditions. In general the “inhalation of the vaporized essential oils derived from chamomile flowers is recommended to relieve anxiety, general depression”. However, if you wanted to pick a plant for a task, the extract of German chamomile contains a higher proportion anti-inflammatories (chamazulene) while Roman is considered better for soothing skin conditions.

I partly grow chamomile to harvest the flowers but the chamomile plant itself is like a tonic for the garden. It is pest and disease free and boosts the health of all crops that it grows alongside but improves the flavour of brassicas and onions. I have them interspersed with other plants to encourage insects and improve the overall health of the garden.

The German variety is native to Europe and western Asia and is an upright annual that can grow to 1 metre tall. The Roman variety is native to western Europe and north Africa. In theory it is a low-growing perennial at about 20cm in height. However, for me, the roman chamomile seeds have produced a plant that is almost as tall as the German chamomile. Both produce small, daisy-like white flowers with yellow centres. This yellow centre is flat on the German variety and raised in the Roman variety (see pictures below).

German Chamomile

German Chamomile

Roman Chamomile

Roman Chamomile

At the start I was picking the blossoms daily to get them just when they open for best flavour. However they need to be dried immediately after harvesting and for this they need to be laid out flat on a mesh screen in a warm place indoors, out of direct sunlight. This is causing a space issue as it takes several weeks for the flowers to dry completely.

For more information on chamomile there is an interesting article published here: Srivastava JK, Shankar E, Gupta S. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future. Mol Med Report. 2010;3:895–901.


Honeybush packetI’m a long time fan of rooibos but hadn’t tasted its honey-flavoured relative, honeybush, until I was in South Africa two years ago. Even in South Africa, honeybush is the underdog to rooibos but I happened across this packet from the Langkloof mountain and ended up regretting that I hadn’t bought more. A lot more!

The honeybush plant grows naturally in the mountains of the Eastern Cape and spreads down along the Langeberg and Swartberg mountains into the Western Cape towards the coast as far as Bredasdorp. It comes from the same Fabaceae family as rooibos and is similarly low in tannins and caffeine-free. There are ~24 known species of honeybush in the genus Cyclopia but only a few have been successfully cultivated. As a result, most of our honeybush is harvested in the wild (70%) and the remaining 30% is produced from the 230 hetares of cultivated honeybush. A recent report from the South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC) warned about this unsustainable harvest putting honeybush at risk of extinction.

Honeybush loose teaIt’s not surprising that demand for honeybush far outweighs supply. Honeybush is consumed worldwide but Germany accounts for over half of the 220 tons of exported Honeybush. Together with the US and the Netherlands these three countries buy nearly 90% of all the Honeybush that leaves SA.

In terms of taste, it is sweet and has less of that distinctive malty rooibos taste, which some people dislike. It is soothing but the bright honeyed flavour makes it less of an after-dinner tea. Because of the natural sweet flavour, I think it works best as an afternoon tea.

To prepare, 250-300ml of freshly boiled water (100° C) is added to 5g of loose leaf tea. I leave it for several minutes for a deeper taste because unlike real tea it doesn’t get bitter when steeped for a long time.

For more information on honeybush there is an good profile report available from the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.


Some bitterness

chamomile group shotLast year I wrote about Chamomile and there is no doubt that growing it was easy and very rewarding. I am, however, having a problem with the taste of the infusion. After picking the flowers, I dried them immediately in the hot-press and then transferred them to a jam jar for storage in a dark cupboard. I infuse around five flowers in hot water and leave for two to three minutes but the taste is incredibly bitter, almost to the point of being undrinkable. I’ve tried different brewing techniques: cooler water, less infusion time, fewer flowers but there is no getting away from it!

German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is said to be a little sharp but less so than Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile). My herb-growing friends say that theirs has an edge but nothing that a little honey can’t solve. I know that I didn’t pick the blossoms on the day that they opened and maybe the drying or storage conditions weren’t ideal but the bitterness seems disproportional to these lapses.

I’ll try to do better this year but in the mean time, I will console myself with the knowledge that herbalists associate bitterness with joy and energy. It is said that some bitter foods in our diet can support healthy digestion by stimulating saliva and other enzymes, promoting bile production for the digestion of fat and regulating blood sugar levels.

Jim McDonald goes into some detail in a chapter called “Blessed Bitters” (download pdf) and concludes by saying:

We avoid bitterness because its taste seems uncomfortable; it challenges us. And yet when embraced, we find what it offers us is an abundance of medicine, which allows us to escape from a state of stagnation and release those things, both physiological and emotional, that hinder the blossoming of our wellness.”

I will continue to drink my challenging chamomile and await freedom from stagnation 😉

chamomile up close

Chamomile Herbal Tea

Chamomile Single Flower

Chamomile was one of the nine sacred herbs that the Anglo-Saxons believed had special powers. Known in English as Maythen, it was said to lift the spirits and have antifungal qualities. It is an anti-stress drink that eases sleep but it is also used for muscle aches, headaches, nausea and skin burns. It is  said to relax muscles and for this reason is used to relieve spasms of the digestive tract, colitis and diverticulosis and interestingly, it claims to also stimulate the appetite. As with all herbs, caution is needed before ingesting –  I have read that it should not be taken during pregnancy or while nursing and it may interact with certain drugs.


Chamomile herbal tea has been a long-standing bedtime drink in our house and this year we grew our own chamomile for the first time. I bought a tiny pot of unknown variety for €3 last June and less than 3 months later it is a thriving chamomile plant that is low maintenance and colourful. It spreads low to the ground and the area that it covers is weed-free which is more than can be said for the rest of the garden!


The word chamomile comes from Greek and means “ground apple” and that’s exactly what it smells like. Two types of chamomile are grown in herb gardens for medicinal use: Roman (Chamaemelum nobile) and German (Matricaria chamomilla). The German variety is native to Europe and western Asia is an upright annual that can grow to 1 metre tall. The Roman variety is native to western Europe and north Africa and is a low-growing perennial that is usually about 20cm in height. Both produce small, daisy-like white flowers with yellow centres, though in terms of taste German chamomile is reportedly sweeter.  While the medicinal applications are similar, the German chamomile is contains a higher proportion of chamazulene, an active anti-inflammatory while Roman has a higher alcohol content and is considered better for skin conditions.

Both varieties are pest and disease free and gardeners often spread them among crops and herbs to boost overall health of the garden. There is a non-flowering variety of Roman chamomile and this can be used instead of grass for full lawns because it will thrive when lightly trodden. Buckingham Palace is said to have such a chamomile lawn that was planted for George V.


Chamomile Group ShotMy plant had one bloom when I bought it in June and since then has continued to bloom heavily. The blossoms should be picked the day that they open for the best flavour (I haven’t done this) and should be dried immediately after harvesting. To dry, they are spread on a mesh screen in a warm place indoors, out of direct sunlight. When the flowers are completely dry, store in light-proof jars or in a dark cupboard.

To prepare the herbal infusion, add boiling water to a teasppon of the dried flowers. Cover the container while it infuses to avoid evaporation of volatile oils. Leave for 3-5 minutes and then enjoy.

Ronnefeldt – Rooibos Vital

I bought this Ronnefeldt tea in Germany and I knew it was a rooibos but the rest of the ingredients were a mystery until I got home to use Google translate. It is part of the Ronnefeldt Wellness range and contains unoxidised rooibos (green), papaya, elderberries, carrot, natural flavours, blackberry leaves, apple mint and sunflower blossoms. The mix of colours and textures are interesting to photograph – if anyone would like to see the other 50 variations of this shot, do let me know!

Vital Tea

The list of ingredients sounds like a lot but the taste is light and not too sweet. The mint is refreshing and the overall taste is lively even though there is no caffeine. As with all rooibos, the preparation is straightforward. Just 5-7g tea and freshly boiled water. I left it for several minutes for a fuller taste.

Health benefits of Rooibos

The health benefits of tea are constantly mentioned in the media and a lot of people seem to start drinking tea (especially green tea and herbal teas) for health reasons. So, from time to time, I gather and review the research that is published.

Rooibos Farm (source)

Rooibos Farm (source)

Rooibos is a caffeine-free tisane that comes from the leaf of Aspalathus linearis. Since it does not come from Camellia sinensis it is not a real tea so we call it a herbal tea or tisane. Traditional medicinal uses of rooibos have included alleviation of infantile colic, asthma, allergies, dermatological problems, digestive discomfort and anxiety.

Many studies have been done on the antioxidant content of Rooibos. Marnewick found that a 200ml serving of Rooibos has 58.5 – 68.9mg of pholyphenol antioxidants (depending on amount of leaves used and brewing time). Studies on the chemical constituents of the antioxidants in Rooibos have shown the presence of nothofagin, aspalathin and isoorientin, orientin, rutin and several other flavonoids and phenolic acids. The types of polyphenols in Rooibos are different to those in Green tea and Black tea and in particular, the antioxidant aspalathin can not been found in any other natural sources besides Rooibos. Researchers have found that “an aspalathin-enriched extract of green rooibos is able to lower raised glucose levels in the blood of diabetic rats” (source).

Two of Rooibos’s antioxidants (quercetin and luteolin) have been shown, in vitro, to induce the death of cancer cells (in vitro just means that the tests were carried out in a controlled environment outside a living body, e.g. in a test tube). Rutin has been found to prevent the formation of thrombosis (blood clots) in mice and orientin has been associated with a reducing damage to the bone marrow and gastrointestinal tract after mice were exposed to radiation.

Aspalathus linearis

Aspalathus linearis (source)

Although, the antioxidant content of Rooibos is well documented and there are many laboratory results on the benefits of those antioxidants, I found it very difficult to find scientific, peer-reviewed articles on human studies involving Rooibos. One paper, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, looked at the effect of Rooibos on specific parameters for adults at risk of developing heart disease. The results were positive and Rooibos significantly improved the lipid profile and the redox status. However, just 40 participants were involved in the study so presumably it would need to be repeated with a much larger group before it could be cited as conclusive evidence.

Rooibos has long been used to soothe colic in babies but the tea gained particular attention in the late 1960s when a South African woman, Annique Theron, found that it eased her infant’s colic. The story goes that she found no documentation on the benefits of Rooibos so she began her own experiments with babies who had colic and allergies. She concluded that Rooibos helped with the symptoms and she published a book in 1970 entitled “Allergies: An Amazing Discovery”. Rooibos seems to be still recommended by South African physicians in the treatment of colic even though the scientific evidence as a treatment does not seem to exist. Similarly, there is no scientific research into Rooibos as a treatment for skin allergies or digestive problems but its use as a treatment for both seem widely accepted.

Rooibos NaturalSo what’s the bottom line on the health benefits of Rooibos? Well, Rooibos is naturally caffeine-free, calorie-free, low in tannins and rich in antioxidants. Some lab and mouse work have been done on the specific benefits of the antioxidants in Rooibos but research on human models is scant. I think Ferreira et al put it best when he said “the growing body of evidence pointing towards the therapeutic value of Rooibos tea gives a considerable degree of credibility to the anti-ageing claims, but expectations of a healthier life rather than increasing lifespan would perhaps be a more realistic outlook”.


Rooibos Natural

Rooibos (pronounced “roy-boss” in South Africa, pronounced “roo-y-boss” here) is a caffeine-free tisane that comes from the leaf of Aspalathus linearis and not Camellia sinensis. Rooibos is produced in South Africa and similar to tea processing, it can be oxidised (red) or non-oxidised (green).

Rooibos from above


It is generally said that Rooibos is an acquired taste. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like it (in fact, I can’t remember my life before Rooibos at all!) but the flavour is different to every other tea so maybe it takes a little while to get used to it. Rooibos often comes flavoured (e.g. vanilla, caramel) and these can be very sickly. If you haven’t tried Rooibos, my advice is to try an unflavoured Rooibos first and experiment with the flavoured varieties later if you like the basic taste.


Rooibos is a relaxing and hydrating drink and not one for energising or kick-starting your day. Because it is caffeine free, it can be taken at any time. I drink it mostly in the afternoons or as a soothing end to a heavy meal.

Rooibos TeaThe preparation of Rooibos is straightforward and one of the least fussy teas to prepare. Put 5g of loose leaf  tea into a brew-basket (or teapot) and add 200ml of freshly boiled water (100° C). It needs to settle for about 4 minutes but can be left longer for a deeper taste, as it never gets bitter. The leaves can be re-used for multiple steepings but it’ll be noticeably weaker after several uses. I never use milk or sweetener but I’ve seen people adding both in South Africa.

The Rooibos pictured here is organic and fair-trade  and was bought in Ghent, Belgium for €2.95 (for 100g). The tea is a little hazy and not as clear and crisp as higher grades was great value.

Fennel Tea – the Nausea Cure

Creamy food, too much wine, and rich deserts all tend to have the same effect of making us feel heavy and sluggish and even nauseous. So after a big meal it’s best to stay away from traditional tea & coffee that will put an extra strain on your poor gut and go for a herbal tea.

Fennel Seeds

Fennel Seeds

If you don’t like liquorice, then fennel tea probably isn’t for you but drinking this can feel almost instantly soothing for the stomach. As a bonus, fennel seeds are rich in anti-oxidants and a concentrated source of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. Fennel tea can also be taken for other digestive ailments like indigestion and heartburn.


Bruised Fennel Seeds

Bruised Fennel Seeds

Fennel comes in the form of light brown/green seeds. To prepare I bruise about a tablespoon of seeds (5g) with a pestle and mortar (bruising between two spoons works too). Then I put the seeds in a brew basket, add 200ml of boiling water to the cup and infuse for about 5 minutes. The brown fluid looks a bit murky but smells of liquorice and aniseed and is pleasantly warming to drink.

Most tea houses and herbal shops will stock fennel seeds but because fennel seeds are used regularly in cooking, you can usually buy it in the spices section at the supermarket.