Beta-Glucans and the Dual Role of Prolactin: a detective story

Beta-Glucans and the Dual Role of Prolactin: a detective story

Beta-Glucans and the Dual Role of Prolactin: a detective story

Intro

A handful of our valued lactogenic foods—oats, barley, brewer’s and nutritional yeast, seaweed and medicinal mushrooms—are blessed by a molecule called beta-glucan.

It might seem obvious that beta-glucan increases the milk-making hormone prolactin as well as bringing about changes in a mother’s physiology that promote good lactation. Yet, a clear mechanism of action eluded us for decades. In fact we were told it was impossible.

That is because we only thought about beta-glucan as food and about prolactin as a hormone. Beta-glucan is more than food, and prolactin is more than a hormone.

To prepare for this article, I did a dive into disparate studies. I believe that especially for lactation consultants and for curious mothers, what I learned in the process will excite you. It is truly a detective story.

If you need help remembering terms from biology, this intro will get you started.

Beta-Glucans are a long-chained sugar molecule. Because they are not digestible—our digestive enzymes and intestinal flora cannot break them down for absorption—they remain in the intestine, thickening and softening the stool for easier “going.”

Beta-Glucans molecules are called a polysaccharide. Poly here means many, and saccharide means sugar. They are called viscous because they are gel-forming. Think of how gloppy oatmeal gets when you cook it: it’s the gel-like polysaccharides in oats that quell out and make the glop.

A cell-receptor is a place on a cell’s outer membrane that is perfectly formed to lock in a specific particle. Here, the Dectin-1 receptor locks in beta-glucans fragments.

Tissues are specific cells that work together to form organs or parts of the body that do specific things: muscle tissue, bone tissue, glandular tissue, and so on. In this article, I mention pituitary gland tissue, the gland in the brain that produces prolactin, and mammary gland tissue, the tissue in the breasts that secretes milk.

The immune system is a complex set of cells that work together to fight off disease. The endocrine system is a complex set of hormones that work together to coordinate everything from how we use energy from food to how we orgasm or lactate. There’s also a system that involves neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.

Although we think of these systems as separate entities, they are not. In this article we’ll learn about an overlap between the immune system and the endocrine system. We’ll discover that prolactin is both a hormone and an immune cell. And we’ll learn that beta-glucan from food acts like a vaccine, training the immune system to react more quickly to pathogens.

Macrophages are the big polar bear of the immune system. They eat up any particle that looks like a threat to the body. They can travel into and throughout the various tissues of the body, and what they eat also travels throughout the body with them. They excrete their crush fragments into the extracellular matrix, a system of gel-like polymers and proteins that surrounds and supports all the tissues of the body.

In 1989, researchers from France placed swine’s pituitary tissue in a petri dish and let it swim in an extract of beta-glucans from oats and barley. Within 2 hours, the pituitary tissue secreted quantities of prolactin, the milk-making hormone.[1]

To those of us looking for answers, this outcome was exciting. It seemed to resolve the question whether eating barley or oats actually raised levels of prolactin and breast milk production or if women were simply imagining this result.

A second study by the same researchers injected beta-glucans into the bloodstream of ewes and cows, resulting in greater secretion of prolactin and improved milk production.[2] And a US-Germany study from 2004 confirmed that beta-glucans, in direct contact with the pituitary gland, increase prolactin.[3]

Sadly, in spite of these results, our hopes for a causal relationship between beta-glucans and milk production were dashed. That’s because beta-glucans are an insoluble fiber that is not digested and absorbed into the body. While in a petri dish or if injected directly into the bloodstream, this molecule increased prolactin, when eaten as food, beta-glucans were not absorbed into the body and thus could not reach the pituitary and increase prolactin. Alas!

Until science discovered how beta-glucans were absorbed into the body it would rule them out as a substance that increases milk supply.

Beta-Glucans form a bridge between the immune and the endocrine systems

Researchers conducted the above studies from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Since that time, researchers did discover at least one way that beta-glucans can escape from the intestine: they hitchhike a ride via large immune cells called macrophages.

Let’s look at what happens.

Because beta-glucans resemble fungi, the macrophages in the intestine believe they are a pathogen. They therefore attack and “neutralize” the beta-glucan.

Macrophages are garbage collectors. With their enormous size, they surround and engulf pathogens, fungi, cancer cells, microbes, cellular debris, and whatever else appears to be a threat. Then the macrophages, much like garbage trucks, crush what they have collected into tiny pieces. 

Macrophages can pass back and forth through the intestinal wall. Anything that a macrophage eats while in the intestine will be carried out of the intestine and into the body. So you see, there is in fact a way for beta-glucans to get into the interior of the body: as crushed fragments in the belly of a macrophage.

When a mother eats food that contains beta-glucan, her macrophages first engulf the beta-glucan and then crush it into tiny fragments.

The macrophages then carry the beta-glucan fragments to the interior of the body.

When they die (and about a billion are born and die each day), they release all their fragments into what is called the extracellular matrix.

Now the beta-glucan fragments, floating around freely, can attach to other immune cells. To do this, they use a cell receptor called Dectin-1.

Remember that name: Dectin-1 receptor

This turns out to be a good thing. Remember: beta-glucans have a molecular structure that is similar to fungi as well as other pathogens. That is why, when they attach to Dectin-1 receptors, they actually educate and train the immune cells to react more quickly and fight off pathogens, including cancers and upper respiratory diseases.[4]

SIDE-NOTE: Tissues within the mammary glands, the uterus, pancreas, and fat pads also produce prolactin. And depending on the context, prolactin will function as a hormone or as an immune cell.

The Pituitary has Dectin-1 receptors!

In 2014, Iranian researchers, studying beta-glucans and pituitary tissue in vitro, were able to identify Dectin-1 receptors on the prolactin-producing cells of the pituitary.[5]

They determined that beta-glucans, attaching to these Dectin-1 receptors, triggered prolactin production and also increased the intensity of prolactin production.

Trumpet sounds please! 

Summary

So now we know how beta-glucan escapes from the intestine. We know that beta-glucans have a beneficial effect on the immune system. We understand that the pituitary is part of the immune system, and that when beta-glucans lock into Dectin-1 receptors on the pituitary, prolactin is released in its capacity as an immune cell.

But is the story really over? 

I have to wonder if other tissues in the body also produce prolactin when beta-glucans are around. What about fat-pads, and tissue in the mammary glands?

I do not know the answer, but researchers from China, studying sprouted barley grains, a beta-glucan rich food for lactation, stated that they saw increased prolactin expression in mammary gland tissue in response to beta-glucans.[6]

Yes, they found prolactin was expressed from tissues in the mammary gland, in response to a beta-glucan rich food. My detective hat is on again… stay tuned.

 

Pectin

Pectin, like beta-glucan, is tested in animals [7] and also in vitro on pituitary tissue. Researchers have shown pectin to increase prolactin. [8]

But while we do not yet know how pectin increases prolactin, we do know that beta-glucan and pectin have much in common.[9]

  • Both pectin and beta-glucan are immunomodulatory: they improve immune responses.
  • Both are non-digestible fibers, and are viscous (gel-like) polysaccharides.

Studies on viscous polysaccharides have established their profound value for metabolic health: they reduce insulin spikes and allow for better blood sugar balance.

See my article on the dance of hormones in the postpartum, and my article on the conditions in which diet can help support lactation, for more information on these subjects. 

Some Thoughts

Traditional postpartum diets are often rich in beta-glucans (barley, oats, seaweed, mushrooms, yeast) and in pectin (seaweed, greens, some fruit). These foods are prepared by the family for the mother, who is urged to eat them throughout the day, every day, for weeks and even months on end.

We can help mothers learn how to use lactogenic foods in their daily fare. Indeed, oats, oatmeal and oat-cookies are sources of beta-glucans and are the lactogenic food of choice by Western women. We can expand this range.

Consider the dual stimulation: suckling at the breast produces prolactin in its role as a hormone, and beta-glucan activates prolactin in its role as an immune cell. Most likely, beta-glucans stimulate tissues beyond the pituitary to produce prolactin.

Looking at how women have eaten beta-glucans after childbirth, most likely for thousands of years, perhaps there is a lesson for us here about the potential benefits of a lactogenic diet in a world where lactation is ever more difficult. 

Afterword

While this article concentrates on beta-glucans and pectin, many other lactogenic grains, vegetables, fruit, and herbs are especially rich in viscous polysaccharides and have unique ways of supporting lactation.

We have a lot still to learn.

Be sure to sign up to my newsletter to be notified when new articles drop, and for updates on courses, classes and books. 

References

[1] Sepehri H, Renard C, Houdebine L-M. β-Glucan and Pectin Derivatives Stimulate Prolactin Secretion from Hypophysis In Vitro. Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. 1990;194(3):193-197. doi:10.3181/00379727-194-43077  

[2] Sawadogo L, Sepehri H, Houdebine LM. Mise en évidence d’un facteur stimulant la sécrétion de prolactine et de l’hormone de croissance dans les drèches de brasserie [Evidence for a stimulating factor of prolactin and growth hormone secretion present in brewery draff]. Reprod Nutr Dev. 1989;29(2):139-46. French. PMID: 2502999. 

[3] Breuel, K. F., Kougias, P., Rice, P. J., Wei, D., De Ponti, K., Wang, J., … & Williams, D. L. (2004). Anterior pituitary cells express pattern recognition receptors for fungal glucans: implications for neuroendocrine immune involvement in response to fungal infections. Neuroimmunomodulation11(1), 1-9. 

[4] Moerings, B. G., de Graaff, P., Furber, M., Witkamp, R. F., Debets, R., Mes, J. J., van Bergenhenegouwen, J., & Govers, C. (2020). Continuous Exposure to Non-Soluble β-Glucans Induces Trained Immunity in M-CSF-Differentiated Macrophages. Frontiers in Immunology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2021.672796 

[5] Shaerzadeh, F., Sepehri, H., & Delphi, L. (2022). Stimulation of Prolactin Synthesis by β-Glucan via Dectin-1 Receptors in GH3/B6 Cells. Journal of Mathematics9(4). 

[6] Zhang, Z., Wei, Q., Zeng, Y., Jia, X., Su, H., Lin, W., … & Wang, Q. (2021). Effect of Hordei Fructus Germinatus on differential gene expression in the prolactin signaling pathway in the mammary gland of lactating rats. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 268, 113589. 

[7] Sawadogo, L., Houdebine, L. M., Thibault, J. F., Rouau, X., & Ollivier-Bousquet, M. (1988). Effect of pectic substances on prolactin and growth hormone secretion in the ewe and on the induction of casein synthesis in the rat. Reproduction Nutrition Développement28(2A), 293-301.

[8] Sepehri H, Renard C, Houdebine L-M. β-Glucan and Pectin Derivatives Stimulate Prolactin Secretion from Hypophysis In Vitro. Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine. 1990;194(3):193-197. doi:10.3181/00379727-194-43077 

[9] Sawagado, L., & Houdebine, L. M. (1988, January). Identification of the lactogenic compound present in beer. In Annales de biologie clinique (Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 129-134).

 

Anti-Lactogenics – Herbs, Meds, Vitamins, and Foods that can undermine milk production

Anti-Lactogenics – Herbs, Meds, Vitamins, and Foods that can undermine milk production

Anti-Lactogenics – Herbs, Meds, Vitamins, and Foods that can undermine milk production

Herbs that can Reduce Milk Supply:

To learn why some mothers have more risk than others for low milk supply, read here. You may find that your supply is better protected if you avoid the following as herbs, spices, in food or beverages, and as extracts or flavorings in candy, breath mints, toothpaste, medicine, foods and beverages.

Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, peppermint, spearmint, walnut shell, yarrow.

  • Warning: The essential oil of oregano leaf is a popular supplement. It is antibacterial, antifungal, and antivirus. We often use it against the flu and urinary tract infections. However, oregano oil can decrease milk production. Use with caution.

When to Alternate Herbs

  • Some mothers find they have to alternate any combination of herbs every few days to avoid their effects wearing off.
  • Fennel Seed: Begins by increasing milk supply and milk flow, but continuous can have a drying effect and reduce supply.

NOTE: When taking the same supplements every day, pausing one day a week can prevent the body from becoming desensitized to the supplements. The same holds true for lactogenic foods and herbs. 

Common Medications that Reduce Milk Supply

  • Many cold, sinus, and allergy medications (such as Sudafed, Advil Cold, Sinus, or Claritin-D) have a drying effect on the mucus membranes. They contain pseudoephedrine, a decongestant that can dry up your milk supply. 
  • Birth control pills and injections and hormone-based IUDs often reduce supply.
  • Wellbutrin and Zyban (both a form of bupropion) are known to reduce milk supply.

Dopamine Enhancers

Dopamine is a chemical that conducts signals between nerves. Dopamine also acts as a hormone and is involved in metabolic processes in the kidneys and spleen.

Normal levels of dopamine are lactation-friendly, but higher levels of dopamine suppress the pituitary’s production of prolactin which in turn decreases milk supply.

–Not all women have a sensitive reaction to dopamine-enhancers, yet it is wise to be aware of their potential to reduce milk production.

The two main dopamine enhancers are described below: B6 and Aspartame.

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6 is a coenzyme in the synthesis of dopamine.

Too much vitamin B6 will increase dopamine and lower prolactin. In fact, decades ago, B6 was used like bromocriptine today, to suppress lactation after childbirth.

While vitamin B6 is crucially important for nerve health, continually taking too much (more than 200 mg a day) can lead to nerve damage.

A high dose of B6 is sometimes recommended for Reynaud’s (when the nipple painfully blanches white). According to Dr. Newman, 200 mg of vitamin B6 per day is an upper limit for Reynauds. However, if a mother is dealing with supply issues, it may be wise to keep that dose lower, to 150 mg a day.

B6 can be found in breakfast cereals, protein bars, sports drinks, and also in supplements of other nutrients. If you have milk supply problems, examine the ingredients of the foods, beverages and supplements that you use or eat frequently. You might discover that you are over-dosing on B6.

Aspartame

Aspartame, a zero-calorie sweetener, is in NutraSweet, Equal, Candarel, Pal Sweet Diet, and AminoSweet.

Aspartame is found in sugarless sodas, candies, chewing gum, mints, cereal, jellies, deserts, and sweeteners, and it is also used as a flavoring in medication.

Aspartame is metabolized into an amino acid called phenylalanine, which is a precursor to dopamine. High dopamine reduces prolactin and can impact milk supply.

Aspartame interacts with neurochemistry, gut integrity, and cortisol.

It is not unusual for people to consume aspartame in various foods and beverages every day, and, when trying to stop, to go through withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia.

Aspartame should be avoided during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, as it is believed to trigger seizures in some people.

When trying to stop a food habit that involves aspartame, be prepared for withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia.

Tip for Healthcare Providers: Help your client identify sources of aspartame, and discuss a gradual reduction.

Too-much Caffeine

Caffeine is found in soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, coffee, mate, black, green, and white tea, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate (but not white chocolate).

When we produce milk, the hormones cortisol, insulin, and estrogen are kept in a specific balance that puts a pause on ovulation and menstruation and supports milk production.

Caffeine elevates the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Too much cortisol impairs insulin, a hormone that regulates milk supply. High cortisol also increases dopamine and reduces prolactin. Clearly, caffeine is a milk-buster if over-used.

Many people who over-consume caffeine have a genuine need to be awake and alert, such as a student studying for a test or a doctor on the night shift. Mothers commonly turn to caffeine to get through the initial exhausting weeks and months of infant care—unaware that this can inhibit milk production. 

Chocolate

Over-eating chocolate, another source of caffeine-like chemicals also increases stress hormones with the potential to reduce supply. Some women have reported better milk flow after they eliminate the last bit of chocolate from their diets. 

On the other hand, high-quality chocolate, eaten moderately, is very lactogenic. Indeed, centuries ago, unprocessed cacao beans (half cacao powder, half cacao fat) were famous across Europe as a galactagogue.

Consider this: the over-use of caffeine actually depletes the body’s energy reserves. First, it uses up your reserves of magnesium, needed for the health of the nerves, for good sleep, and for a calm and steady heart rhythm. Magnesium also relaxes the lungs and reduces the bronchial spasms of asthma.

Caffeine also empties the mitochondria, the energy batteries of cells.

Stress hormones can paralyze the peripheral parts of the nervous system. This reduces blood circulation to the breasts.

Your takeaway: It makes sense that the overuse of caffeine would not be good for milk supply. But if caffeine is enjoyed moderately and the diet is otherwise based on lactogenic ingredients, caffeine is most likely not a problem for the vast majority of mothers.

Anti-Lactogenic: Astringents

The American Heritage online dictionary defines astringents as:

“A substance that draws together or constricts body tissues and is effective in stopping the flow of blood or other secretions.”

You might be familiar with the word “astringent” from face care: astringent lotions are used to tighten and tone the skin and shrink and close the pores.

It appears that some women’s breast tissue responds sensitively to astringent foods, beverages and herbs. The tightening and constricting of mammary tissue would reduce blood circulation, limit the action of hormones, lessen the letdown, constrict the milk ducts and reduce milk flow.

Women who have less developed mammary glandular tissue may be more vulnerable to the effects of astringent foods, but all mothers are best advised to avoid them in the early weeks. 

The structures that surround the mammary glandular tissue, the so-called Extracellular Matrix, may be inhibited or constricted by dehydration and astringents. The matrix is re-hydrated through foods that moisten, hydrate, and soften the Extracellular Matrix, such as viscous polysaccharides.

Astringent Foods, Beverages, and Vitamins

  • Astringent foods are mouth-puckering. Think sour and acidic as in pickles and citrus fruit.
  • They can also feel mouth-drying. Think strong black tea.

Astringent foods include acidic foods, such as citrus juice, citric acid, and all fruit juices that contain citric acid; vitamin C (ascorbic acid), sour berries, and fruit.

Some mothers may also need to avoid carbonated beverages. They are made with carbonic acid and are somewhat acidic. Mothers might also use soft drinks to suppress their hunger and reduce their caloric intake, which will also undermine the milk supply.

  • Soft drinks, sports drinks, and carbonated water may also contain caffeine, citric acid, and vitamin B6, all of which reduce supply.
  • Red raspberry leaf tea is rich in tannins—it has that mouth-puckering feel to it.

Your takeaway: think about which sour, mouth-puckering and mouth-drying foods and beverages are part of your diet. Reduce or eliminate them until your milk supply is well established.

I learned about the milk-busting effect of sour and acidic foods and beverages from a German nutritionist. At that time, I was drinking bottles of carbonated “mineral water” each day. When I stopped, my supply finally began to grow.

Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) and Citric Acid

Vitamin C is an acid. In my counseling of mothers with insufficient glandular tissue, we included vitamin C in the list of foods and supplements to avoid because of its constricting effect on the tissue of the breasts.

Many mothers reported that avoiding vitamin C did in fact improve their ability to naturally increase their milk supply.

We found the same to be true of citric acid, which is found in many beverages and packaged foods. 

Uncertainties…

Some mothers eliminate more mouth-puckering foods such as sour tomato, paprika, sour apples, and cucumber. A few mothers have said that it helps. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and sensitivity to mouth-puckering foods and astringents will differ.

Avocado is a question mark. You may have noticed that some avocados are sour and mouth-puckering. I myself noticed that avocados inhibited rather than supported my supply.

Taking extra care with mouth-puckering foods may be important if you have a condition called IGT (insufficient glandular tissue), as I do.

A Special Case: Sports Drinks

Sports drinks are frequently recommended to increase supply, from mother to mother and sometimes also by well-meaning healthcare providers.

These drinks contain the electrolytes that improve hydration.

Many of us are chronically under-hydrated. We are not eating a mineral-rich diet and may lack sufficient electrolytes. 

However, some sports drinks contain anti-lactogenic ingredients that are especially detrimental to mothers with IGT: carbonation, citric acid, vitamin C, vitamin B6, or other B vitamins. If they consume several bottles of sports drinks each day, these ingredients can add up and have an anti-lactogenic effect.

During the early postpartum, traditional societies serve mothers beverages and food that are especially hydrating, that support the production of prolactin, that balance blood sugar and insulin levels, and that support the development of the mammary and areola glandular tissues. (These are discussed in my book Mother Food and also in the class I am currently giving.)

Beverages that contain oat milk, almond milk, or coconut milk are an alternative to sports drinks, for instance: Horchata can be made with one or more of these. Of these “milks,” coconut milk is the most hydrating.

Some sports drinks contain 7 or more teaspoons of sugar. If a mother drinks a bottle before nursing and had a sudden surge of milk supply, this is a red flag for insulin resistance: the sugar in the beverage, as well as the electrolytes, are helping the hormone insulin overcome its resistance to access her breast glandular tissue and trigger the release of milk.

Drinking a beverage sweetened with honey or eating a high-quality WHITE chocolate bar are two healthy ways to overcome the insulin resistance and turn on the milk making tap.

For permission to use, contact me.

Thank you. -Hilary Jacobson

The Postpartum Dance of Estrogen, Insulin, and Cortisol, for Milk Production

The Postpartum Dance of Estrogen, Insulin, and Cortisol, for Milk Production

The Postpartum Dance of Estrogen, Insulin, and Cortisol, for Milk Production

Introduction 

To understand common lactation difficulties, we need to investigate the sensitive dance of estrogen, insulin, and cortisol after childbirth and during lactation.

How we use Energy – It Matters

All living beings are able to absorb energy from outside sources and to use that energy to fuel their life. Plants get their energy from sunlight on leaves. The sunlight is metabolized into starch in the cells of leaves and is then used by the plant to fuel its further growth. This process is called photosynthesis.

Animals and insects eat the leaves and then use the plant’s starch for their own energy needs. These starches are changed into a form of sugar called glucose, which is transported around the body in the blood (blood glucose) and used to fuel the muscles and organs. Excess glucose is put into storage in the liver and muscles. When a burst of energy is needed, the stored glucose is mobilized for rapid use.

Animals and insects eat plants, but they also eat other animals and insects. This allows the eater to absorb types of tissues, vitamins, proteins, minerals and fats that the predator does not easily produce itself. For instance, humans do not produce vitamin C or vitamin B12 in our bodies. We depend on food sources. We also have a hard time producing important fatty-acids that are needed for the brain and the nerves. We get these fatty acids from certain leaves, seeds, nuts, and fish. Humans are less able to produce vitamin D in our body as we age and need to absorb it from food sources.

Human women store excess glucose in our fat pads for the specific use of having extra energy for pregnancy and lactation. In fact, fertility typically only turns on when there is enough stored fat to support a pregnancy.

The Dance of Postpartum Hormones     

Insulin and cortisol are hormones that orchestrate the uses of energy (calories) that we derive from food. Insulin tells the blood glucose where to go. Cortisol dictates how our stored fat will be used.

After childbirth, insulin levels sink to an all-time low and they remain that way throughout the first long phase of exclusive lactation. With these lower levels of insulin, the body does not use blood-glucose to fuel the needs of muscles or organs. Instead, the breastfeeding hormone, prolactin, makes the breast tissue highly sensitive to even these lower amounts of insulin, so that blood-glucose can be directed into the breasts and the milk.

In this dance, the priority is on milk production. At the same time that insulin levels are kept low, the hormone cortisol is kept high. Cortisol tells the mother’s body to take its energy from stored fat. The fat is now metabolized and used for a mother’s daily energy needs. This is why, after childbirth, a mother gradually loses her excess weight: higher levels of cortisol tell her body to access its calories from her stored fat pads.

Estrogen, a hormone of fertility, is the dance partner of insulin. When insulin goes low, estrogen also goes low. This is why women no longer have menstrual cycles while breastfeeding.

When, after months of exclusive breastfeeding, a baby begins eat solids and to gradually wean, the mother’s body increases her levels of insulin. Now she begins to use her own blood-glucose for energy during daily life, and no longer her fat reserves. She begins to gain weight and to build fat reserves in preparation for the next pregnancy. When her insulin levels are high enough, and she has gained enough weight to support another pregnancy, her estrogen levels also increase. This turns on her menstrual cycle. She is ready to conceive.  

Scroll down past the summary and the science extract to read how our present-day blood-sugar and insulin imbalances interfere with the hormonal dance of lactation, leading to the many lactation difficulties that are widely experienced.

Summary of the Hormone Dance

This, then, is the unique dance of hormones that is supposed to occur after childbirth. 

Insulin low, estrogen low, cortisol high.

But the mammary cells are particularly sensitive to even low levels of insulin. This allows the breasts to be fully active.

We see this postpartum pattern in studies on animals and primates (gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans). This pattern also emerges in a set of studies from the 2000s, in which postpartum insulin levels were measured in Toba women who lived a Paleolithic lifestyle in the forests of Argentina.[1] 

The Problem of Insulin Resistance

Most people today have some degree of a condition called “Insulin Resistance.” It typically develops throughout our formative years in response to a diet with foods that are high on the glycemic index, such as French fries, potato chips, bread, packaged breakfast cereal, candy, cookies, ice-cream, soda, pizza and so on. On this diet, the hormone insulin is constantly in demand. It becomes so active and “loud,” so “nagging,” that the cells of the body stop listening to it. They “resist” responding to insulin’s signals. They are now “insulin resistant.”

Lifestyle factors also play a role: certain medications, chemicals around the house and garden, lack of good sleep, and chemicals in the soaps and cosmetics that we use on our body: anything that causes further inflammation in the body contributes to the furthering of insulin resistance. 

Insulin resistance leads to a vicious circle. When the cells of the body resist accepting energy from blood-glucose, we are actually in danger of death. Too much sugar in the blood is that dangerous. 

Accordingly, the levels of insulin in the blood increase dramatically, more and more. This is called hyperinsulinemia. Higher levels of insulin produce a stronger signal so that eventually the cells do accept the signal and open up to absorb the excess glucose. But the underlying condition remains. As the body produces more and more insulin, the stage is being set for diabetes, a serious illness. 

Gestational Diabetes, often dismissed as being just temporary, is a clear risk factor for diabetes and it is also a red flag for a potentially difficult start to breastfeeding. 

Symptoms of Insulin Resistance

Feeling hungry throughout the day, easily gaining weight, experiencing sudden drops in energy, loss of concentration and fatigue, are signs of progressing insulin resistance. 

Insulin Resistance and Lactation

Now that you understand the Dance of the Hormones, imagine the body attempting to create this dance pattern in the presence of Insulin Resistance and with perpetually higher levels of insulin in the body. It is not possible.

The result can be a lack of full maturation of the mammary tissue during pregnancy, delayed onset of lactation after childbirth, an unreliable supply, and early return of menstruation.

There are other results, such as mothers being unable to lose weight while breastfeeding, even needing to eat more calories to maintain their supply: they are in a struggle with their body’s insulin resistance. Drinking a sugar-laden “sports drink” is one way to force insulin to peak so its signal can get through all the resistance, and this is surely one reason that sports drinks are so popular for supply-challenged mothers.

As well, insulin resistance during our teen years, especially in combination with health problems such as eating disorders (not allowing the body to develop its normal fat pads at the onset of puberty, or being too thin to have menstrual cycles), or a hormonal condition called PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome – present in approximately 10% of women), can lead to a condition where the mammary glands do not fully develop at this time. This condition is known as insufficient glandular tissue, IGT.

Yet, even in the face of all this, most mothers are able to produce their personal, optimal supply. Her supply may not cover all of her baby’s needs, and she may have to top it off with donor milk or formula, but she and her baby will have that special and unique time together.

To navigate these breastfeeding hurdles, families require patience, understanding, and the guidance of a knowledgeable lactation consultant. 

We pass Insulin Resistance to our Babies in the Womb

Sadly, insulin resistance is passed from mother to baby in the womb. Our children gain weight more easily and are at risk to develop health problems linked to insulin resistance earlier in life. 

This cross-generational increase in insulin resistance is manifestly seen across the world in quickly rising levels of obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease and dementia. Because insulin resistance also increases what is called “systemic inflammation,” it promotes the development of inflammatory or autoimmune conditions, which can include depression and anxiety. 

The cross-generational passing of insulin resistance is a world-health tragedy. Yet it is never described in mainstream sources and very little research—on humans—has focused on ways that we might correct it. 

Solving Cross-Generational Insulin Resistance

On animals, however, a plethora of research exists. From these studies, we know that one way to turn it around is to eat foods and take supplements that are high in antioxidants.

In animal studies, antioxidants reduce and even eliminate the impact of a mother’s insulin resistance on her unborn children. These same antioxidants protect the delicate mammary and placental tissue, and thus support the maturation of the mammary glands during lactation. 

Insulin Resistance, Dehydration, and Lactation

One of the mechanisms that the body uses to get rid of excess blood-glucose is to pee it out. It does this by extracting water from the deeper tissues of the body and directing this moisture into the blood, diluting the sugar in the blood so it is less damaging as it passes out in the urine.

To do this, the body takes water first from the areas between the cells (the extracellular matrix), and then from within the cells. 

Only a fully hydrated extracellular matrix allows for fully functional cells and a fully developed mammary gland complex. By not addressing deep hydration, the problem remains. 

It is no coincidence that traditional postpartum soups and gruels, without exception, have deep-hydrating ingredients that maintain the extracellular matrix and keep the cells fully functional. We’ll talk about this in class. 

Additionally, extracts from lactogenic foods and herbs are frequently used in high-end cosmetic products because of their hydrating and moisturizing properties.

To summarize, the lactogenic diet is: 

  • Deeply hydrating
  • Uses herbs and foods and are anti-inflammatory
  • Contains herbs and foods that are used in traditional medicine to treat insulin imbalances.
  • Contains herbs and foods that are anti-anxiety and anti-depressant.
  • Contains herbs and foods that support immune health.
  • On top of this, uses kitchen spices and herbal galactagogues to positively influence the hormones of lactation: prolactin and oxytocin.

 

1) Valeggia, C. and Ellison, P.T. (2009), Interactions between metabolic and reproductive functions in the resumption of postpartum fecundity. Am. J. Hum. Biol., 21: 559-566. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajhb.20907

Table of Contents, Blog Posts, HilaryJacobson.com

Table of Contents, Blog Posts, HilaryJacobson.com