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).

 

Some Causes of Low Milk Supply that Respond to Foods and Herbs

Some Causes of Low Milk Supply that Respond to Foods and Herbs

Some Causes of Low Milk Supply that Respond to Foods and Herbs

Lactogenic foods and herbs are commonly “insulin sensitizing,” “blood-sugar balancing,” or have an “anti-diabetic” effect.

These foods also have an anti-inflammatory effect, quieting the “noise” of inflammation caused by insulin resistance but also by exposure to toxins, BPA, and PFORs. This quieting or calming of inflammation allows the hormones to communicate clearly about building and maintaining mammary glandular structures. (You can learn more about this in my class.)  

The following may help you understand why this may be important for you.

Hormones

These hormonal imbalances can create lactation difficulties in a portion of mothers.

  • Insulin resistance (IR),
  • Thyroid imbalance (too high or too low),
  • Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS),
  • Metabolic Syndrome, Syndrome X,
  • Gestational Diabetes, Pre-Diabetes, and types 1 and 2 Diabetes.

Insulin Resistance

Insulin resistance is an integral part of many hormonal imbalances. But why is insulin important to milk production?[i] Insulin resistance affects many systems in the body. Even the thyroid can be impacted by the inflammation that goes hand in hand with insulin resistance. So what is insulin resistance? Why is it so central, so important?

Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, plays a key role in the development of mammary tissue during adolescence and pregnancy. It plays a role in the initiation of milk production after childbirth, and it contributes to the steadiness and reliability of milk production for the long term.

Insulin also plays a central role in fertility. When breastfeeding women begin to menstruate soon after childbirth (3 – 5 months, instead of returning only after a year or longer), insulin resistance is likely the cause.

For insulin to be fully functional and effective, our cells must be sensitive to its signals. Our cells must respond to its signals. When we become insulin resistant, the opposite occurs: our cells become insensitive and unresponsive to insulin.

Americans tend to acquire insulin resistance (IR) because:

  • We grow up eating the standard American diet
  • We are under stress at home, work and school
  • We tend to over-eat and under-sleep

The good news is that we can turn insulin resistance around and improve insulin sensitivity with:

  • Dietary changes (see Dr. Jason Fung’s books and lectures online),
  • LACTOGENIC Herbs and foods that improve insulin sensitivity, and
  • Anti-stress methods such as progressive relaxation and / or mindfulness.

Disclaimer: talk to your doctor about your health questions regarding insulin. Do not take the information in this book as a prescription.

[i] NommsenRivers, L.A., Riddle, S.A., Thompson, A., Ward, L. and Wagner, E. (2017), Milk Production in Mothers with and without Signs of Insulin Resistance. The FASEB Journal, 31: 650.9-650.9. https://doi.org/10.1096/fasebj.31.1_supplement.650.9

IGT

During adolescence, some girls will only partially develop their mammary glandular tissue (the glands that produce milk). While this is not common, it is also not rare. The medical term for this is mammary or breast hypoplasia. It is commonly referred to as IGT.

IGT stands for “Insufficient Glandular Tissue,” and it encompasses the entire range of partial development: slightly less mammary tissue than optimal, half the tissue, very little tissue, or practically no mammary tissue at all.

IGT has many causes, including hormonal imbalances during adolescence, radical weight loss and dieting during adolescence, and exposure to pesticides and pollutants in childhood.

IGT and PCOS (Polycystic ovarian syndrome) often appear together. In our online group, mothers often have both IGT and PCOS.

 

During pregnancy and also after childbirth, mothers with IGT can use a lactogenic diet to best develop their mammary glandular tissue at those times. For instance, mothers may drink infusions of herbs that are rich in nutrients and also insulin sensitizing, which improves mammary gland maturation. 

Nutritional Lacks

Nutritional deficiencies, especially low vitamin D, A, the B’s, iodine, iron, zinc or calcium, can impact lactation.[i] [ii] In the United States, magnesium and trace minerals are often lacking in our commercially grown, processed and packaged food. To handle the exertions of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation, and to maintain our own best health, we simply have to eat whole, fresh foods, and, if needed, to supplement with vitamins and minerals.

I know one mother with chronic low milk supply who was suddenly able to produce sufficient milk after her doctor prescribed a mega-dose of vitamin D. Another mother reported improvement only when she began eating foods containing vitamin B12, such as eggs, liver and dairy. I recall one mother whose supply rose considerable after eating steak. Did she need the iron, or the protein?

A well-balanced, whole foods diet along with any needed supplements is a common sense way to build reserves of all the nutrients needed for milk production.

 

[i] Lee, S., & Kelleher, S. L. (2016). Biological underpinnings of breastfeeding challenges: the role of genetics, diet, and environment on lactation physiology. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab, 311(2), E405-422. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00495.2015

[ii] Kuznetsov, V. (2017). Clinical and pathogenetic aspects of hypogalactia in post-parturient women. Актуальні проблеми сучасної медицини: Вісник української медичної стоматологічної академії, 17(1 (57)), 305-307.

Not Always Obvious…

Mothers and healthcare providers can easily overlook the underlying causes of a mother’s lactation difficulties. A mother with insulin resistance, PCOS or Metabolic Syndrome might have a perfectly healthy outward appearance; persons with Pre-Diabetes are often unaware of their condition; and IGT may not be visibly apparent. Nutritional lacks are also invisible. Even thyroid disorders can come as a surprise, as they can develop suddenly after childbirth, even if the thyroid was not a problem before.

Medical Testing

Because underlying problems are not always apparent, healthcare providers should routinely test for thyroid function, blood sugar balance, and nutritional deficiencies if a mother has lactation difficulties. In most cases, treating the thyroid, improving insulin sensitivity, and supplementing as needed with zinc, iodine, magnesium, the B’s and / or vitamin D3 will support a mother’s efforts to improve her milk supply. 

 

[i] Lee, S., & Kelleher, S. L. (2016). Biological underpinnings of breastfeeding challenges: the role of genetics, diet, and environment on lactation physiology. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab, 311(2), E405-422. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00495.2015

[ii] Kuznetsov, V. (2017). Clinical and pathogenetic aspects of hypogalactia in post-parturient women. Актуальні проблеми сучасної медицини: Вісник української медичної стоматологічної академії, 17(1 (57)), 305-307.

For information on our classes for mothers, IBCLCs and postpartum caregivers, go HERE.

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.)