Striking the delicate balance of producing adequate milk supply for a newborn baby can be like walking a tightrope for some women. Traditional Chinese medicine looks at the balance of yin and yang, heat and cold, qi (energy) and blood, to recommend changes to diet and lifestyle to help increase breast milk production for individuals with low milk supply.
One of the beautiful and holistic ways Chinese medicine looks at the body is in its diagnostic patterns. While Western medicine may diagnose and treat low milk supply or “insufficient lactation” the same for all women dealing with this, Chinese medicine looks for an underlying cause and pattern that would restrict milk production. Chinese medicine views breast milk as an extension of our blood. There are multiple causes for low milk supply, and therefore multiple treatment plans.
Qi flows in channels in the body called meridians. These channels eventually connect to internal organs in the body, which they are named after. The meridians of the stomach, liver, and kidneys travel through or near the breast tissue. Ancient texts paint a picture of a river flowing as an analogy to qi flowing through meridian pathways. Deficient qi, caused by overwork to the body, mind, or spirit, causes the river of qi to dry up. Acupuncture points are located throughout meridians, like little tide pools throughout a river. They are important parts of the channel where energy accumulates and affects the entire meridian and its functions. Modern anatomy recognizes acupuncture points as electrically charged points of the body often at intersections of connective tissue.
Tips to Improve Low Milk Supply:
1. Move Your Qi
The best way to effect stagnation in the body is through movement. Think of how it feels to exercise, especially after a long period of neglect. Similar to stretching your legs at a rest stop during a long drive, moving qi when it was previously stagnant feels good. If qi isn’t active, breast milk won’t flow. Good ways to change this are exercise, massage, fire cupping, and warm compresses. Applying a warm compress, like a hot water bottle or a microwavable neck and shoulder wrap, to breast tissue and back between the shoulder blades, will allow qi to flow.
Applying pressure to acupuncture points is a great way to affect breast milk supply. To apply acupressure, first accurately locate the point, then apply pressure straight down into the point or perpendicular to the skin and move your finger in small circles. The diameter of most acupuncture points is about the size of a pea so make your circles small with a deep pressure for about 60 seconds.
Gall Bladder 21 (do not use in pregnancy, okay for breastfeeding).
GB21 is on the gall bladder meridian, and it is responsible for moving qi downward. It is an excellent acupressure point for low milk supply. It encourages the breast milk downward and out for the baby, instead of staying stuck and stagnant and causing low milk supply. It is also why we never use this point in acupuncture or acupressure during pregnancy, as encouraging qi flow downwards may induce labor. Find this point at the top of the shoulder, at the highest point of the trapezius muscle. It is located halfway between the neck and shoulder bone, along the seam of most tee shirts. The direction of the acupressure should be towards the feet.
3. Dietary changes
Since Chinese medicine sees breast milk as an extension of blood, it’s important to eat a diet with blood-nourishing foods.
Foods to include for low milk supply:
Dark Leafy Greens
Organic eggs and meats
Also, eating warm and cooked foods is important for qi and blood to improve low milk supply. Avoid salads, smoothies, and ice in drinks when trying to increase breast milk and go for cooked soups, stews, and stir-fries.
Fluid intake cannot be underemphasized. It’s crucial to be hydrated to create and sustain fluids in the body when creating breast milk. Take notice that hydration can be affected by irregular bowel movements or vaginal discharge post-birth. See a health care provider if you are experiencing either of these symptoms to be sure they are not affecting your hydration. A great way to get more hydration through foods is to try a porridge or congee for breakfast. Congee is traditional breakfast eaten throughout Asia that is very nourishing to the yin and fluids of the body. Use barley in place of rice for the medicinal properties of barley for increasing breast milk supply. Try bone broth in place of water to boost the nutrient content even more.
Barley Congee Recipe
1 cup pearl barley, raw (strengthens qi and blood)
1 medium onion, chopped (moves qi)
3 cloves of garlic, minced (moves qi)
12 cups water, or substitute some bone broth, chicken stock or beef stock for water (Strengthens qi and blood)
Green Onion, cilantro and/or red pepper flakes for garnish (moves qi)
1) Rinse barley well under cold water.
2) Simmer the barley, onion, and garlic in broth in a large pot for 30 minutes.
3) Spoon into serving bowls and top with green onion, red pepper flakes, and cilantro.
Number of servings: 6
4. Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture
Both acupuncture and Chinese herbs are safe while breastfeeding. It’s necessary to see a licensed and qualified acupuncturist to determine the correct herbal formula for you, as they are specific and individual for each patient. Acupuncture is the use of very small, stainless steel needles on acupressure points. When you have acupuncture, the body responds by increasing circulation of blood and relaxing the muscles. This is great for increasing milk supply. Most people experience acupuncture as deeply relaxing. At our office, we welcome moms to bring their babies to cuddle or nurse during their acupuncture treatment if they’d like. Herbal remedies may be in the form of pills, tinctures, granules, or raw, whole herbs to cook into a tea. Chinese herbal medicine has been used for thousands of years for lactation and can be very effective and safe when used properly.