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The Use of Beer as a Galactagogue, historically and today

The Use of Beer as a Galactagogue, historically and today

The Use of Beer as a Galactagogue, historically and today

The ancient civilizations of Sumer and Egypt discovered the secrets of malting and brewing over three thousand years ago, using the barley grain.

Barley is thought to possibly be the first grain cultivated by humans. It contains a long-chain polysaccharide, beta-glucan, that increases the hormone of milk production, prolactin.

Barley is used around the world in many different forms as a milk-supply boosting galactagogue, for instance as beer, soup, and broth.

According to pictorial hieroglyphs, women and slaves were involved in the labor of large-scale beer production in Egypt. Later, in Greek and Roman times, barley was one of many ingredients that might be freely combined in a variety of alcoholic recipes. When these ingredients included lactogenic herbs and fruit, the effect was doubtless noticed by breastfeeding women.

The Greek doctor Dioscorides (1st century C.E.) describes an alcoholic beverage to increase milk supply made with dried black figs, freshly pressed grapes, fennel, and thyme, all of which are known lactogenic ingredients.

The Greek surgeon Antyllus (2nd century CE), mentions a fermented grain beverage that was combined with the crushed unripe seeds of the sesame plant and crushed palm dates–two very potent, lactogenic ingredients.

These were doubtless just two of perhaps countless beverages that were enjoyed by breastfeeding women across the ancient world.

Moving on to Europe

During the Dark Ages, when the skills and knowledge of the ancient world were largely forgotten (suppressed), the art of brewing was kept alive in monasteries across Europe. Eventually, however, with the development of small farmsteads, brewing techniques passed into the hands of women as domestic work. Each thriving family farm brewed its own beer, and the term “Brewster” referred to a woman who brews in her home. 

Brewsters used barley and other grains, and a range of herbs were added in for their taste and medicinal properties. The preferred herbs had a bitter taste to balance the sweetness of the grain, were antiseptic to keep the drink free of pathogens, and were anti-parasitic (for instance, they killed intestinal worms). Lactogenic herbs such as pepper, cinnamon, coriander, caraway, and anise were used in brewing. They may well have been added in when the Brewster was breastfeeding. Mind-altering, narcotic and sexualizing herbs might also be used in brewing. Such drinks were later ascribed to the practice of witchcraft and were forbidden. (See my Red Madder Root post for more about the suppression of women’s herbs.)

Hops flowers, a bitter, relaxing, and slightly narcotic herb that reduces sexual drive and potency, and that most likely reduced violence and rape in the general population, became the standard herb for brewing.

Hops is also an estrogenic galactagogue with a strong reputation for the milk ejection reflex. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), an influential nun, author, herbalist, songwriter, and philosopher of her day, is said to have strongly advocated for hops to become the standard herb used in beer. My guess is that Hildegard knew what she was doing for women and mothers. Thank you, Hilde!

For several centuries, brewing remained domestic work. It became a source of family income, with beer sold through local pubs or directly from the farm. As economies began to evolve, however, the upper classes passed laws that successfully suppressed these small family businesses.

For several centuries, brewing remained domestic work. It became a source of family income, with beer sold through local pubs or directly from the farm. As economies began to evolve, however, the upper classes passed laws that successfully suppressed these small family businesses.

Brewing recipes were strictly regulated, and fees and fines imposed. Brewing became impractical for small domestic breweries and pub houses, and the way was now clear for large industrial breweries to dominate the market, industries that have prospered to the present day.

Today, small breweries are attempting to break free from the stranglehold of the commercial beer industry. If you enjoy beer, I urge you to support them!

Guinness, one of the big British breweries, specializes in a stout that is made with barley malt and barley grain. The added barley makes the stout “silkier” and “thicker” due to beta-glucan, the viscous polysaccharide (long-chained sugar molecule) in barley that increases prolactin. It makes sense that Guinness is the commercial beer most frequently recommended today for breastfeeding mothers, as it is one of the very few to still contain good amounts of beta-glucan. 

Beginning in the early 1500s, German law limited the ingredients to barley, hops, yeast, and water. Reasons for this went beyond taste preferences. By prohibiting the use of wheat, more wheat was available to bake bread. By restricting the allowed ingredients, various other types of beer were pushed into obscurity and could no longer compete with the large breweries.

The law effectively got rid of international competition as it formed a protective barrier to the importation of any foreign beer that used other ingredients. These restrictions would eventually influence the international production of beer, as brewers in neighboring countries conformed to the restrictions so that they could compete within the large German market.

Luckily for breastfeeding mothers, the “pure” ingredients defined by German-type beer, barley, malt, hops, and yeast, are intensely lactogenic. This is why classical European beer is recognized by breastfeeding mothers as the best beer-type galactagogue.

To beer or not to beer

Alcohol is anti-galactagogue. Studies on animals and humans show that alcohol impairs the milk ejection reflex, slows the flow of milk, and leads to a reduced intake of milk by the baby for approximately four hours after mom’s drinking.

As the milk backs-up in the breast, the breast feels fuller. Researchers believe that this combination–the breast feeling fuller, and the baby needing more time to remove milk from the breast, fools mothers into believing that her baby is drinking more milk.

However, in historic beer brewing, the brews of “small beer” and “second brew” (see next section) were preferred by lactating mothers, children, and laborers. In these types of beer, the level of alcohol is considerably lower while the nutritional and herbal value is far higher.

When drinking a small beer or second beer, the nutrients and herbs may have prevailed over the effect of the reduced alcohol content. 

Other factors that may override the anti-galactagogue effect would be whether the mother drinks the beer on an empty stomach or if she has recently had a meal, and also how soon after drinking she breastfeeds again. It is likely that if a mother first eats and then drinks, and if several hours pass between drinking and nursing, the effects of the alcohol will have worn off while the effects of the lactogenic ingredients will still be potent. 

This seems to be the case, according to reports by exclusively pumping mothers who say that by drinking one glass of beer after dinner in the evening (beer rich in barley or hops, such as Guinness Dark Stout or non-alcoholic, malty St. Pauli Girl), they pump measurably more milk the next day. Some also say that they have more frequent and stronger let-downs at the pump that same evening.

Small Beer – Big Effect

In home brewing, the so-called “mashing” (or boiling of malt, grains, and herbs) was performed twice with the same grains and herbs. Whereas the first mashing returns a strong alcoholic beer, the second mashing returns a low-alcoholic beverage called “small beer” that was loosely filtered—a thin, porridge-like fluid that could practically be eaten!

Up until 150 years ago, “small beer” was viewed as a healthy, nutritious beverage that could be given to children, servants, to men performing hard labor, and to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. In Germany, the second mash was called “Nährbier,” meaning, literally, “nutritional beer.” Into the mid-20th century, Nährbier was produced in Germany commercially and recommended to breastfeeding mothers as nutrition and to enhance their milk production.

This then is the typical historic beer used by breastfeeding mothers: stronger in nutrition, weaker in alcohol. It is quite a different brew from any commercial beer today.

It is important to keep this in mind. Our typical, light-colored alcoholic beers do not contain enough lactogenic ingredients to counteract the anti-galactagogue effects of alcohol. Commercial, light beers made with corn and rice and wheat rather than barley can lead to a decrease in supply! Non-alcoholic beer, however, especially if rich in barley and hops, can be a good galactagogue.

Our Grandmothers were right!

Clearly, our foremothers knew what they were doing when they used beer as a galactagogue. They would use a classic stout-type beer, rich in beta-glucan, or they would drink “small beer.”

The British OBGYN, Charles Routh, writes about beer in his book Infant Feeding and Its Influence on Life (1869). He writes that too much beer and not enough food will reduce supply and risk alcoholism. To use beer as a galactagogue, Routh suggests one oz of dark beer mixed together with one oz cream (delicious!) and drunk every few hours (I believe he was weaning mothers off of their beer habit). He also recommends the specific brands of stouts/ales that were reputed to be most effective by the professional wet-nurses of his time.

Malt Beer

During the 19th century, “temperance movements” formed in many countries around the world to discourage the use of alcohol. In response, beer industries produced non-alcoholic beer-like beverages using hops, yeast, and malt. In the US, malt beer was called Near-Beer; in Germany, Malz-Bier, and in France, bière de nourrice, or “wet-nurse beer.” All were recommended as nourishing beverages for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and were reported to support milk supply.

Malt is derived from barley grain. Both malt syrup and malt powder are a widely used historic galactagogue. Today, many new brands of malt-beer are available commercially. The best known is the Guinness Malta. Malt beers are very popular in South America, Africa, and Israel. Many mothers swear that Malta helps support their supply.

The Bad News and a Solution

Very sadly, many if not most mothers and their newborn babies are sensitive to gluten, which is found in barley. Products and meals that have barley as an ingredient are best avoided, especially in the early postpartum, when a baby’s digestion is just learning how to function. Inflammatory substances such as gluten contribute to infant colic and are therefore best avoided, at least for the first several weeks of the baby’s life.

Here is an article on infant colic, how it develops and why it is so important to calm colic in babies.

But there is good news, too. I recommend that mothers supplement with a yeast-derived source of beta-glucan. Mothers often have a big response to beta-glucan supplements resulting in more milk supply. (The author has no association to this beta-glucan brand, it just serves as an example.)

Sow Thistle – a forgotten galactagogue and anti-anxiety “weed”

Sow Thistle – a forgotten galactagogue and anti-anxiety “weed”

Sow Thistle – a forgotten galactagogue and anti-anxiety “weed”

The Sow Thistle (also called Hare’s Thistle, Rabbit’s Thistle, and Goose Thistle), is an ancient galactagogue with many medicinal properties. It is liver-protective, anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. It can be used to help relieve anxiety and anxiousness.[i]

Because Sow Thistles can be grown on any type of soil, and also in a residential garden, in containers, or a rooftop garden, the Sow Thistle is viewed as a potential commercial crop. [ii]

The leaves are high in protein and fiber, potassium, copper, calcium, manganese, zinc, and phosphorus. They are extremely high in vitamin C. They are a good source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, so essential to a well-functioning immune system.

Forgotten Galactagogue

The ancient Greek doctor Dioscorides, (2000 years ago), lists sow thistle as a galactagogue.

The British herbalist Nicolas Culpeper described its use in 1653: The decoction of the leaves and stalks causes an abundance of milk in nurses.

Today, the use of sow thistle as a galactagogue is still remembered by the older generation in Italy.[iii]

Harvest: Varieties of sow thistle have differently shaped leaves. They may be soft with rounded edges or tough and spiky-rimmed. The spiky leaves are tender when the plant is young, as in this photo, but as they age you’ll need to cut away the rim with scissors. You might also want to soften the leaf with a rolling pin.

Food: Sow thistle leaves are delicious in early spring. They taste like sweet chard. They can be eaten in salad, boiled like spinach, or sautéed in olive oil.

The unopened buds are also edible; they taste like hazelnuts.

The main use for milk supply: leaves and stems, prepared as a concentrated broth or as food.

My Suggestion for your Galactagogue Trials

Recipe: To make a “decoction” (a strong broth), simmer the leaves and stalks in a half-covered pot for 20 minutes. Sip a just few teaspoons of the bitter liquid at a time. Don’t overdo it.

Repeat the dose some hours later. If you tolerate it well, try repeating the dose every few hours for a few days. If after four days you notice no change, this plant is not going to have the desired effect.

Does this information intrigue you?

If yes, you will enjoy my book A Mother’s Garden of Galactagogues, available now on amazon. It is full of planting info, and also milk-supply-boosting know-how for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

Also, I am now working on a book that covers the biggest and most important secrets of using lactogenic herbs and foods effectively to optimize milk supply—using many of the plants listed in my gardening book. 🙂 I’m teaching a class on this same information that you can find here.

It’s exciting! 

 Footnotes

[i] Xiu-Mei Li & Pei-Long Yang (2018) Research progress of Sonchus species, International Journal of Food Properties, 21:1, 147-157, DOI: 10.1080/10942912.2017.1415931

[ii] Xiu-Mei Li & Pei-Long Yang (2018) Research progress of Sonchus species, International Journal of Food Properties, 21:1, 147-157, DOI: 10.1080/10942912.2017.1415931

[iii] Geraci, Anna & Polizzano, Vincenza & Schicchi, Rosario. (2018). Ethnobotanical uses of wild taxa as galactagogues in Sicily (Italy). Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae. 87. 10.5586/asbp.3580.

 

Starting Sweet Potato Slips for your Galactagogue Garden

Starting Sweet Potato Slips for your Galactagogue Garden

Starting Sweet Potato Slips for your Galactagogue Garden

 

In my attic office, next to a south-facing window, I’m setting up sweet potato slips.

Instead of growing them, I could just buy sweet potato slips in the garden center in the second week of May. But because it’s doable and fun, I’m growing them myself.

One method is to fill a plastic container half-way with potting soil or coconut coir or a mixture of both.

Keep the soil moist but not sopping. Keep it in a set-up that holds humidity. Give it sunlight, too, and open the container every day to let out some of the extra moisture to prevent mold. Add water as needed.

In a month or so, several “slips” (leaf shoots ) will be a few inches long. They can then be removed and put in a glass of water, to develop a set of roots.

It is now March 7. In mid-May, the slips will be planted. Beneath the soil, lots of tubers will grow, so in autumn we’ll have a small harvest. At the same time, long vines bearing edible leaves grow in abundance.

Sweet potato leaves are considered an important potential food source, both because they are nutritious and because the sweet potato will grow in near-drought conditions.

The leaves have been studied for their medicinal properties. They are rich in antioxidants and are strongly anti-diabetic. As a vegetable, the leaves are eaten raw or cooked like spinach.

Sweet potato leaves are listed as a galactagogue and used to support milk production in parts of Africa and Asia.

For more information, see my book A Mother’s Garden of Galactagogues.

I personally experienced that #galactagarden fresh vegetables and herbs were powerful milk-boosters, stronger than herbs in capsules, tinctures, or tea.

I have risk factors for low supply: PCOS and IGT. My exploration of #galactafood led to my book Mother Food.

The fact is that mothers around the world prefer #galactafood – that is, using lactogenic ingredients in their food – instead of concentrated tea or tinctures. 

 

 

A Video Tour of my weedy Galactagogue Garden

A Video Tour of my weedy Galactagogue Garden

A Video Tour of my weedy Galactagogue Garden