Saturday, 7 February 2015

Herbs For Breastfeeding

When I was at school, my friend Tanya, who is incidentally the second to last person ever to give me a haircut, claimed that she was a mammal and I wasn't because one day she would breastfeed her babies and I wouldn't.  This thought made quite an impression on me because when you think about it a lot of what defines the different classes of vertebrate is in fact to do with mothers rather than fathers.  However, she turned out to be incorrect, but only very slightly.

Here's a rather wince-inducing picture:

When you're most familiar with what you can see, there's something very disturbing, rightly so, about the idea of these visible parts being cut into, and I can't look at this picture without feeling a physical pain in my chest.  Nonetheless, it's a useful picture because it illustrates where the milk comes from.  The breasts of people whose zygotes only had one X chromosome are often, but not always, unlike this because the ducts are not hollow.

I've spent quite a lot of time contemplating how to help people produce more milk from a herbal perspective.  Clearly it's not the most important aspect of lactation but it is at least something I know a little about.  Personally it seems to be mainly about happening only when it genuinely serves a deeply-felt emotional need which is giving to another person, namely my own child, and it can't be played with or done  "unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly", as it were.  It would happen if it absolutely had to happen to save someone's life in my immediate vicinity, but not otherwise.  When it did happen, I didn't use any herbs or anything else to make it happen.  It just did.  As a result, I have no experience of succeeding in provoking it at first hand with herbs, although I have plenty of experience of succeeding with helping others do so herbally.  Personally I only ever got as far as colostrum.

Anyway, there are really two main types of herbal galactogogues.  One type relies on volatile constituents, particularly β-anethol.  The other doesn't have much in the way of volatiles.  The reason this is important is that the volatiles carry over into the milk itself and tend to sedate the baby, which you may or may not consider a good thing, probably depending on whether you're a parent or not.  To me, it makes sense to give a baby milk which calms the recipient down and smooths the digestive process much of the time, but I've steered clear of those on the whole because presumably it's not a good thing in the long term to have a permanently chilled-out child owing to the fact that they're supposed to interact with the outside world, so you might want to try some of the others. By the way, if you look this stuff up you will as usual find lots of people saying they don't work and of course if you believe all that they probably won't work as well as they will if you just ignore that and get on with it.  I still have very little idea why there is so much out there of this nature which is so clearly at odds with my quantitative and reproducible experience of the efficacy of herbal remedies and the like, but there it is.  I don't know why, but it is so.

The word "anethol" is from the Latin Anethum, which refers to Anethum graveolens, or dill:

which is probably better illustrated like this:

It smells aniseedy, of course, and is an umbellifer - its flowers occur in bunches or "umbels" like the non-umbellifers elder and yarrow.  The umbellifers, which we're supposed to call Apiaceae nowadays, i.e. the celery family - Heaven forfend we actually have a name for a taxon which describes something someone might recognise and relate to, are probably the richest source of culinary herbs and spices after the Lamiaceae, or mint family, but unlike the Lamiaceae, all of which are basically edible, the Apiaceae include quite a few horrendously poisonous and nasty plants such as giant hogweed, hemlock and water dropwort, which moreover are easily confused with very edible members such as parsnips and common hogweed.  In that respect they're like fungi can be, with innocuous and dangerous species often being quite hard to distinguish.

Dill is not necessarily the best galactogogue (milk-stimulating agent) even in that family.  It's part of a cluster of quite similar herbs with similar actions and all containing the aniseedy β-anethol, the others being Carum carvi or caraway, Feoniculum vulgare or fennel, and Pimpinella anisum or anise (as in aniseed).  Each of these does the same kinds of things but to different relative extents.  They are all galactogogue, all anti-spasmodic, all calming and all good for the digestion and reduce flatulence.  They all kill headlice a bit.  Each of them has a particular association for me too.  Incidentally, the "seeds", the strongest parts of the plant in terms of medical action, are all technically fruits rather than seeds.

A long time ago, I was a notorious farter, a situation which only worsened when I went vegan.  My ultimate solution for this was to put caraway seeds in every meal, and it worked admirably, although it also made me smell of aniseed.  I more or less only have others' words for that though since at the time I was anosmic due to B12 deficiency - I had almost no sense of smell although I could smell caraway.

Dill I mainly associate with a pun in Douglas Hofstadter's rather fun 'Goedel, Escher, Bach' and also with a vegan mayonnaise recipe.  Also, my Rural Studies teacher had a dog called Dill for reasons which will be obvious to most people.  On another occasion, having left a jar of dill on the shelf unopened for several years I once opened it and was overwhelmed by a huge waft of anethol.

Fennel is probably the only species in this list which can be used as a vegetable.  It's a major ingredient in the mediaeval recipe Fenkel In Soppes, which I've made a vegan version of, and was an ineradicable "weed" in the back garden of one of my childhood homes.  Finally Pimpinella anisum was the first tincture I ordered, which was for some reason in polyethylene glycol rather than ethanol, and I realise I should know why, and which I never used and is unopened in a cupboard somewhere.

The reason I mention these associations and memories is that that's what smells do.  They bring back memories very vividly because of the evolutionary association between the memory and olfactory parts of the brain.  Therefore many herbs with strong odours will have such associations for people.

A number of other food plants are in this family, notably parsley, parsnip, carrot, celery, celeriac and smallage.  Parsley in particular is a useful medical herb and dietary supplement, being high in vitamin C and iron, a good combination.

I've mentioned a few of the oestrogenic herbs used as galactogogues previously, so I won't cover them again, but all of those fall into the non-volatile category along with the ones I'm about to mention.  These include goat's rue, Galego officinalis, which however has a poor reputation as a galatogogue, and the rather wonderful Urtica dioica and Urtica urens, the common stinging and small stinging nettles respectively.  The small nettle tends to be better at everything than the common one, and the roots also have the rather useful property of reducing the tendency of Sex Hormone Binding Globulin, the plasma protein which carries testosterone, to do that thing, rendering it useful for benign prostate enlargement.  Whenever I make the association between nettles and milk, I think of the pointiness of the hollow stings and their tendency to have liquid come out of their ends.

Then there's the herb which dries milk up, Salvia officinalis.  When we used this, it took less than a day to stop the flow.

Probably should mention one more thing, for mastitis.  If you iron a cabbage leaf and put it next to your breast when it's just cool enough to bear, the mustard oil generated should penetrate the breast and kill off any nasties swimming about in the stagnant milk inside the breast.