Why and How I Write What I do

Why and How I Write What I do

Why and How I Write What I do

Since my early teens, I’ve been on a quest to find the missing pieces that might help me make sense of the world and of myself as a woman and a person.

One of my first quests was to understand why my parents hated one another and were willing to put the mental health of my brother and myself on the line for the sake of carrying out acts of revenge, punishment and disparagement. Both parents were intelligent and modern thinkers – my mother a High School English teacher and aspiring writer, and my father an electrical engineer and successful inventor. But she loved emotions and aspired to ideals of justice and to living passionately, and he loved facts, loved the dispassionate classics, and would counter her ideals with “life is not fair.” Without going too deeply into who my parents were, beyond just these basics, I want to share that they epitomized for me the tragic inability of otherwise successful and intelligent persons to get along and respect one another.                         

My mother was a second-wave feminist, and one of the things she taught me early on was that you should not be and could not be proud of your reproductive accomplishments (pregnancy and children) because reproduction was “mere biology,” an automatic behavior of the body, and was not the product of a creative endeavor.  

As her daughter, I looked for the missing pieces: that is, for the reason she was so deeply unhappy and unable to feel a connection to other people, including to her children. 

One thing both parents agreed on was to raise my brother and myself without religion. They were atheists—he from a Jewish background, and she, a Catholic. They decided to give us a fresh start. This left both of us feeling rootless and disoriented many years, but it also gave us space to explore different approaches to what it means to be human, without childhood indoctrination. For me, this exploration included a few years of Christian fundamentalism (where I learned my Bible stories and was steeped in Christian metaphysics and morality-for which I am grateful), followed by a time of atheism, and then forays into yoga and meditation. My experiments also included feeling the effects of diet and breathwork on my mood, health, and mental focus and productivity. 

I understood already in my early twenties that it is a mistake to separate the body and mind: they influence one another profoundly. What followed from that thought is the recognition that my mother was wrong, and that children are not the product of “mere biology,” but are a product of who we are: mind, body, heart, soul, and experience. Years later, I would understand that our parents’ and grandparents’ diets, toxic exposures, and life experiences also play a role in our own and in our children’s health and well-being. In fact, preparing for and having children is a profound act of generational love, responsibility and creativity on every level.

***

I would say about my writing that, well, first of all, I never intended to become a writer of non-fiction health-related books. (My degree is in music.) I have always loved to write and dabbled in fiction, creative journaling, and poetry, but writing was a hobby. But when I became a mother myself, and I experienced first hand the sheer number of health struggles that go unanswered and unsupported by our medical experts, I began to look for all the missing pieces. I wanted to know what the suffering was all about.

My book, Mother Food, was the first result of this quest. I discovered that my body’s under-production of breastmilk responded strongly to the foods and herbs I ate, and that women around the world have traditions that are based on this same recognition. Yet for western medicine, the belief that diet mattered for lactation was viewed as “mere superstition.” Biological functions were supposed to be automatic and reliable.  

While researching for Mother Food, I found valuable, even essential, information from many internationally respected sources that addressed the ways that a mother’s diet influences pregnancy, milk production, her baby’s allergies and also infant colic—and much more. I recognized that although this information was available in books and articles, it could not be found in the mothering books and magazines that women read to prepare themselves for birth and postpartum. It was unavailable to mothers. 

It became my goal to collect this information into one place, one book, and to describe it in easy-to-read, compassionate and supportive language (I’ve had “mommy brain” and know it is real). In Working at this project over fifteen years to reach this goal, I learned just how difficult it can be to write good non-fiction! 

Fortunately, I did a good-enough job so that now, nearly twenty years after its initial publication, Mother Food is still recommended by lactation specialists and valued by mothers. 

After its publication, I thought I was done with non-fiction. I allowed myself to indulge my “hobby writing,” starting with a re-writing of fairytales that feature daughters and mothers. I wanted to re-write them in a way that allows the daughters and mothers to heal their relationships, while also talking about the suppression of women’s healing knowledge across centuries of European history. I worked on this compilation, titled Red Madder Root, off and on for six years. Then I put it aside, feeling that the time was not right to publish it.                                                     

As life would have it, in 2013 one of my dearest prayers was answered—I learned a way to help mothers heal emotionally from birth and breastfeeding trauma. On a whim, I’d taken a 200-plus hour certification class in hypnotherapy. (I thought it would be interesting, and a fun way to spend the summer.) Toward the end of the program I realized I had inadvertently acquired a set of fascinating skills that would enable me to help mothers who were suffering from birth trauma and breastfeeding grief. 

I opened a hypnotherapy practice, and, after developing a set of methods that reliably help mothers resolve their grief and re-connect with their mothering-joy, I set to writing again, my second non-fiction book. “Healing Breastfeeding Grief,” was published in 2016. 

The recurring theme of my life seems to be this: finding and picking up the missing pieces, organizing them newly, and then giving the tools I developed to those I hoped would find them useful.

For instance, in the 1990’s, no one talked about how food and herbs can help mothers produce a good milk supply, and in the 2010’s, no one talked about the special traumas of women who struggle to breastfeed or who have a difficult childbirth experience. This second book, too, was welcomed by postpartum specialists, and is used internationally to help mothers recover from their traumatic birth and breastfeeding experiences. 

I thought I was finally done with non-fiction! (Can you tell that I really don’t like writing non-fiction? It is truly so so hard to write well!)

But in 2020, isolated in my home during the lockdowns, I felt moved to write another non-fiction book, again for mothers. This time it was a book about gardening: how to grow foods and herbs that support milk supply but also can be used in the treatment of common family health matters. 

I want mothers to know that important and useful medicinal and edible plants grow wild all around us, in our neighborhoods and gardens, including weeds such as dandelion and purslane, and even common leaves and flowers. A Mother’s Garden of Galactagogues encapsulates a range of how-to-grow knowledge plus medicinal know-how. It was published in early 2021. 

As I wrote the book, I couldn’t help wondering if it would turn out to be useful in the coming climate change scenarios, and so it includes many so-called “famine foods,” “drought-tolerant foods” and plants that can be grown year-round on balconies and porches.

Now, I could finally be done with non-fiction and probably with book-writing as well. I could retire, smell the roses, pet a cat, and express gratitude to friends and family. I could teach and consult.

But in 2021, the impacts of climate change were writ large around the world. Where I live, a thousand-year drought is taking its toll. Our farmers have no water for their fields. Fires burn in surrounding forests from July to September. One endless day in August, the sky filled with smoke and ash, I remembered that peculiar book of fiction that I’d written long ago about mothers and daughters and the suppression of women’s traditions. Taking the abandoned book out from storage, I went to a nearby creek where, down by the bank, sitting close to the water, the air was clear enough to breathe. Turning the pages, becoming absorbed in the stories, I was overcome by emotion and started to cry. It was the most remarkable experience. I heard my own voice from my past, reminding me how and why we commit to live our best lives, even in the darkest of times. 

I wondered if, perhaps the time to publish this book had arrived. After sharing it with a few friends and getting their responses, I was convinced that many wonderful people will appreciate and feel uplifted and supported by these stories.  Perhaps though, especially, this book is for those who believe in family, who support the health of families, who have worked with the healing arts, and who have sought an authentic spiritual path, whether within or outside of any religious teaching. 

The tragedies continue. Now war is creating food shortages. Lockdowns still recur around the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, tells us that even in the best case scenario, the planet will be seeing dramatic changes and loss of habitat in the decades to come. 

I think about young families and children every day. I am heartbroken.

Even in the hardest of times, and even if it were the end of the world, children are born and raised. Babies must be fed. Mothers continue to need to know which of our weeds, flowers, trees, cacti, vegetables and fruit that grow all around will support their milk supply. 

My hope is this: that in responding to loss and tragedy, today’s generation will realize what is on the line and stop all the fighting and quarreling. Let a culture of the heart emerge that both mourns and treasures, that grieves and offers support wherever possible.  

I hope that my little book, Red Madder Root, a book of courage and honesty that I wrote long ago and have now found again, will be part of the initiation into this new phase of culture. It was inspired and written for a time such as this.

 

 

 

 

About Hilary Jacobson

About Hilary Jacobson

In December, 2020, Mariana Gambande, a student at the Douglas College Breastfeeding course for Health Practitioners, asked me for an interview and sent me the following questions. I appreciate the breadth of the questions, and am publishing the interview here as an introduction to my work.  

Question: You are a holistic lactation consultant, how did you end up studying that and what motivated you? Did this information lead you to the use of galactagogues? Where did you study?

Hilary Jacobson: I discovered herbal and dietary galactagogues in 1988 while living in Switzerland. This was a time when doctors and lactation consultants were legally not permitted, per their certifying medical boards, to talk about such “unscientific” things with mothers. 

My personal success with galactagogues and a lactogenic diet motivated me to dive into the research, using the Swiss University Library system as my main resource. 

As I learned more, I resolved to write a book, Mother Food. Coincidentally, the first school of Holistic Lactation formed in 1999 in a Swiss town called Rapperswil, and I was one of the first certifying students. The founder, Christiane Husi-Simoniis, helped me understand herbology, TCM, Ayurvedic medicine, acupressure, and mind-body connection. Those insights were incorporated into my book Mother Food.

The website for the Swiss school of Holistic Lactation Consulting ( Ganzheitliche Stillberatung CH.HU.SI.®)  is: www.stillberaterin.com 

Question: You are also a trained Hypnotherapist, what was your motivation to start that journey?

Hilary Jacobson: Over the years I listened to probably hundreds of mothers talk about the emotional toll of their breastfeeding struggles. For my part, a feeling of sadness and helplessness also grew because I did not know how to help them heal from these emotional wounds. I had figured out the herbs and foods part of the puzzle, but I couldn’t help them in this area. 

I believe that every day a mother is stuck in feelings of loss and grief due to breastfeeding or birth trauma is a day that is lost, or reduced, in multiple ways, for the development of that baby and the development of that relationship. 

We can’t just shake off trauma or grief. A mother can’t decide: “Today I’m just going to feel better,” as much as she might try. She can talk to her doctor about medication of course, but it typically takes a month for medication to unfold its effect – that is lost time – and it does change the personality. 

Many mothers start their mothering journey feeling trapped in negative, crushing emotions. They absolutely do need specialized help. The good news is that trauma actually can be moved through and healed, and that this process is accelerated with hypnosis.

In summer 2013,  I took a 3-month certification course in hypnotherapy. It might surprise you to learn that I did not actually intend to become a practicing hypnotherapist. The school had just opened up in the town where I lived, and I thought that learning about hypnosis might be an interesting and a fun way to spend the summer. As a writer, I was curious to experience how words and images can evoke deep relaxation and a state of trance. I have meditated since my teens, and I wanted to see if and how meditation and hypnosis overlap. 

I found the training fascinating, but also surprisingly healing, physically and emotionally. During the last days of the training it finally hit me that I had unwittingly acquired a therapeutic skillset that I could actually use to help mothers. It felt to me as though my wish had been answered.

I began to practice hypnotherapy with volunteers from mothering forums. With time, I developed techniques that are well-suited to mothers in the postpartum. Presently, I offer one-on-one sessions, but I am also preparing mentoring classes for mothers in basic mindfulness and self-hypnosis techniques–a kind of soft introduction to this form of healing. (See mother-food.com for information.)

Question: Based on your historical research, would you state that breastfeeding has become more or less challenging in our modern culture compared to ancient times? Why do you believe so? What aspects  of our culture are influencing this phenomenon?

Hilary Jacobson: I am fascinated by lactation in early hominids and primates. We know that first-time chimpanzee mothers sometimes fail at milk production. I wonder: is there a sub-set of female primates who struggle more than others?

Studies on primates living in their natural environment reveal a breastfeeding hierarchy: mothers who are stronger and able to access more food have a calmer, more secure personality. Mothers who are weaker and who have access to less food are more nervous. These two types have different patterns of milk production, and their offspring have different patterns of growth and temperament. I think this is a really interesting line of thought. Ayurvedic medicine divides us into types, and the vatta type (nervous, mental, creative) is more prone to lactation problems, per this theory.

If we look at early historic times, we see that in early Western civilizations, mothers quickly lost the basic skills of breastfeeding. In Roman times, books written by a doctor named Soranos carefully outline remedies for the breastfeeding challenges of the upper class. Those recommendations would apply to sedentary, city-living women today, too.

There is no question however that today’s breastfeeding challenges are unique to our times. Fifteen years of research into lactation difficulties, both on a mother’s and her baby’s side, confirm that our challenges are new.  

On the mothers’ side, many women have hormonal imbalances that affect lactation, especially insulin resistance. Today, half of the world’s adult population is pre-diabetic or diabetic. And that’s just the part that can be diagnosed. Easy weight gain, obesity, gestational diabetes, type two diabetes and PCOS – all are associated with some degree of lactation difficulty. Not every woman with insulin resistance will have lactation problems, but many will, and many women with insulin resistance will not even know that they have it.

This is new–and it is a tragedy. We know that many of these women, if given proper support, will overcome these difficulties and go on to breastfeed well. But proper support is both subtle and complicated, and must be tailored to each individual mother and baby. This requires highly trained, experience, devoted and intuitive lactation consultants – in a world in which the skills of the highly trained lactation consultant are hardly recognized or valued. And because health insurance rarely covers this kind of care, it is denied to women of lower socioeconomic levels. 

This is where the the “lactogenic diet” gains relevance, as this diet consists of foods and herbs that improve insulin function while also supporting the major organs of digestion, detoxification and elimination – and this improvement is available to anyone willing to change their food choices. What I am saying is that in addition to improving the mother’s milk supply, the lactogenic diet may help correct the underlying metabolic imbalances from insulin resistance, and prevent the progression to serious disease.

On the babies’ side, we see more babies with severe “oral tethering,” in which the tongue, lips and even the inner cheek tissue are “tied” or bound together in ways that prevent free and complete movement of the tongue. As well as oral tethering, we see more narrowing of the jaws. While these problems are not new, their prevalence has increased.

In the 1970s, Swiss doctors wrote that the narrower jaws were the result of zinc deficiency in the mother’s or grandmother’s diet. This was the first I heard of nutritional lacks having cross-generational consequences. The sheer number of children today with structural changes in their mouths and skulls is most likely the cumulative effect of two or three generations who have now lived fully immersed in the western, industrial lifestyle (processed food, medicine, substance abuse, exposure to toxins and stress). 

For a demonstration of such changes, see the documentation of Weston A. Price from the 1920s:  photographs of the facial and dental structures of tribal peoples before and after eating the western diet.

C-sections  also take a toll: they deprive mothers of the natural oxytocin and opiate surges that are produced when a mother experiences birth contractions. These hormones prepare the pituitary for the production of prolactin and also prime the mothers’ and baby’s brain for bonding. Also, a baby born with C-Section is deprived of an important dose of microbiome from the mother’s vagina, increasing the risk of infant colic and intestinal disease later in life.

And more babies born today have torticollis – that is, their muscles are stuck in a state of tension, so they cannot relax into their mother’s arms to nurse. Mothers in most cultures learn ways to massage babies every day, to release the tension – and for the many other benefits that accompany massage. Today, we must take our baby to a skilled physical therapist, a so-called bodyworker, who is specially trained in infants to help these infants relax and nurse well.

And again – this service is not available to all mothers, so naturally, mothers from underserved communities will experience more hard-to-correct breastfeeding problems, and experience more breastfeeding failure, from all of the above mentioned causes.

Question: Why do you believe it is so difficult for mothers to overcome the sadness of not being able to meet their breastfeeding goals? 

Hilary Jacobson: Mothers frequently say that breastfeeding grief is the worst experience of their lives, comparable to the loss of a loved one. I believe that is because it relates so directly to the core and heart of ourselves as a mother.

One reason it is hard to heal is the loneliness that accompanies the experience. Mothers don’t feel understood and so they do not talk about their feelings. The emotions they feel are complex and intense. Not being able to share these feelings only compounds their intensity.

For mothers to be able to overcome these feelings, and to rediscover and embody their mothering confidence and joy, specialized help is needed. I have developed a method that yields wonderful and quick results. I hope more hypnotherapists will learn these skills and that the essential elements of this approach will one day be wrapped into mainstream postpartum care.

One last thing: not all mothers experience these intense feelings. Many can move through the experience of breastfeeding disappointment without feeling stuck in negative thoughts and emotions, and they are soon able to feel well and be present with their baby.

(See my book Healing Breastfeeding Grief.)

Question: What do you think of the use of galactagogues during pregnancy? Is it possible that they help to stimulate lactogenesis in your experience?

Hilary Jacobson: This subject is close to my heart. No mother or baby should have to wait a full week for the milk to arrive. Multiple studies show that lactogenic meals and beverages the week after childbirth bring the milk in earlier and more fully. This option should be available at all birth clinics and from postpartum doulas. We should avoid the powerful galactagogue herbs, as they can cause engorgement and oversupply, but instead serve gentle lactogenic ingredients and teas that support the transition to milk production (called lactogenesis).

To your question, over the years I have seen stark improvement in mammary gland tissue during a second or third pregnancy when certain herbs are used with regularity. I know of three cultures that recommend specific foods during late pregnancy to help with lactogenesis. This really needs to be studied.

I personally advocate for eating a well-rounded lactogenic diet during pregnancy and enjoying gentle lactogenic meals and beverages after childbirth, and I believe this will lead to a more timely and comfortable launch of lactation and to a more optimal milk production long-term. 

Question: Many times, for the sake of avoiding anxiousness in the mother, it is not indicated to prepare for any eventual breastfeeding problems. However, parents are usually prepared for eventual birth issues, reflected in the vast majority of births taking place in hospitals nowadays. What is your opinion about this phenomenon?

Hilary Jacobson: Clearly, just as the AMA enforces medical oversight for childbirth, the AMA should strongly enforce providing a full range of specialized, highly trained professionals to help all mothers with breastfeeding. Instead, what is available must usually be paid for out of pocket. This is not fair to mothers, and in my opinion, it signals insincerity on the part of the AMA as far as infant care is concerned. We know how beneficial breastfeeding is to both baby and mother. Why are so few resources available? 

We also do not communicate the full situation to pregnant or new mothers.

It’s a conundrum. Mothers who struggle to nurse often say they dearly wished someone would have told them about the possible problems beforehand, and saved them a lot of hardship. But mothers who receive this information before or during pregnancy sometimes say they wish they had not been told, because it caused them unnecessary concern and worry.

This conundrum is just one example of the “uncomfortable spaces” that parents and healthcare providers occupy.

I see it this way: our medical system has a legally binding contract with US citizens to inform us about what we might encounter, what we might prepare for, and what we might prevent through lifestyle choices and behavior. To a great extent, this is not happening.

Our healthcare system is a “divided house,” meaning, it has divided loyalties. Actually, it has many divergent loyalties. And the first rule of medicine, “Do no harm,” gets lost in the process.

For instance, a higher-up at the WHO told me in the early 1990s that, “We say “all women can nurse” not because it is true, but because it will remove doctors’ excuses to push formula feeding instead. You think we are aiming this slogan at mothers in the United States, but really we are aiming it at doctors all around the world. We are insisting that they motivate mothers.”

I replied, “But what about the multitude of mothers who take it literally, and when they cannot produce a full supply, feel like failures.”

He explained that how these mothers felt was sad, but not life-threatening. Their priority was to influence the behavior of doctors and women around the world.

I later understood what he meant: if mothers in the United States cannot produce a full supply, it is sad but not fatal. But when women in impoverished areas of the world are not encouraged to nurse, and if they then resort to formula, the cost of formula can drive the family into deeper poverty. It can also cause long lasting health problems for the baby, or death, because the formula was often mixed with unboiled, unhygienic water, and the powder is stretched, to last longer.

This was how I learned about the “individual vs the population” problem. Help the individual, hurt the population. Help the population, hurt the individual. Examples I often hear around breastfeeding are: 

“If we tell all mothers that nursing can be challenging, fewer of them will try to nurse.”  

“If we tell all mothers that their diet impacts the quality of their breastmilk, fewer will try to nurse because they wouldn’t want to change their diet.” 

But for many mothers, and perhaps for the majority of women, being told about potential problems and also learning how to prevent or ameliorate the problems, as well as being encouraged to accept the problem and not blame themselves if breastfeeding does not work out , will not de-motivate them. Just the opposite. They will take the information and run with it. And that can mean better mental and physical health for the entire family and possibly for further generations of that family.

Our medical industry has divided loyalties. Education in nutrition is minimal at best for doctors and nurses. This helps explain why there is so much push-back on the idea that diet could resolve some of our lactation problems and absolutely no research into it – except from non-American countries.

In my ideal world – a fantasy, admittedly – we would teach young people about cross-generational health loss, due to the western diet and the rise of insulin resistance. We would start in fifth grade, provide more info in sixth grade and Jr. High School, invite parents to learn along, and add more details in High School, including the fact that with insulin resistance, fertility problems and breastfeeding problems are more likely.

We might motivate them with examples of how dietary and lifestyle changes that will most probably improve their own health for the longterm and possibly make breastfeeding easier — but that in the short run, will probably improve their concentration abilities and memory for their school work. 

My daughter was shocked to see documentaries about the sixties, and to note that none of the teenagers and young college students were overweight. What happened? How did we get here? How can we turn the trend around?

Bottom line, if a Great Depression were to come again — a time when many families survived with a small backyard garden, by eating simple food and salad made with dandelion greens from their garden — it is good to know that some important lactogenic herbs grow abundantly as weeds in every patch of soil across the country, and indeed the world. They are free for the taking and can be easily transplanted and cultivated in backyards and community gardens–even on window-sills, balconies or fire-escape platforms. 

In my new book about growing lactogenic foods and herbs, indoors and outdoors, I devote a chapter to describing modern lactation problems. I describe what we can do to correct them, as much as possible anyway. And I show ways to grow lactation-supporting  herbs no matter if you live in a small apartment or a farm.

Question:  Have you found any differences between Switzerland and the US regarding breastfeeding practices?

Hilary Jacobson: When I lived in Switzerland, the people were healthier than here in the US. One example: fungal infection of the nipple called “thrush” was unknown. We in the US are more prone to fungal infection because our diet is processed and heavy on carbs,  our doctors over prescribe antibiotics, and more mothers have C-Sections and routinely are given antibiotics at that time. 

Swiss mothers aim to exclusively breastfeed for six months – and most do. There are milk supply problems but not as many as in the US. Lactation teas, non-alcoholic beer, lactogenic vegetables and foods such as oatmeal, fennel root, malt and whey are routinely used by mothers to support their supply.

Question: What advice would you give to a pregnant woman, to a mother who is experiencing low milk supply, and to one that is experiencing breastfeeding grief?

Hilary Jacobson: Read my books. Grow a galactagogue garden. Stay hydrated. Take yourself seriously and treat yourself kindly. Create a network of holistically trained mother-baby healthcare providers, and reach out for support when needed.

Also, please know that breastfeeding is not the end-all of mothering. There are many things you can do to achieve secure bonding and good neurological and immunological development for your baby. I talk about these in Part Three of my book Healing Breastfeeding Grief, but this really needs to be discussed and taught in childbirth and breastfeeding preparation classes: what besides breastfeeding promotes best development and good bonding. 

We need to have a larger discussion. We are truly all in this together. There is no race or area of society that is not affected. We are all experiencing profound cross-generational losses. But we can improve the health of individuals and the population as a whole over the next few generations by learning new self-healing skills, learning new (and inexpensive) approaches to diet, and refusing to go along with the poor food and lifestyle as it is offered to us today.

My websites: mother-food.com; healingbreastfeedinggrief.com, healingwayhypnosis.com

My books: Mother Food, Healing Breastfeeding Grief, A Mother’s Garden of Galactagogues (coming soon).

 

The Use of Beer as a Galactagogue, historically and today

The Use of Beer as a Galactagogue, historically and today

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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, about 10,000 BCE. It contains a 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, like 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 using 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 more strongly lactogenic ingredients.

These were doubtless just two of many 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 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 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 also 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.

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 standard 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 as 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. 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.

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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.

La bière, une histoire de femmes - Madame Figaro

Malt is derived from barley grain. Both malt syrup and malt powder are a widely used historic galactagoToday, 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