Breastfeeding and Traditional Chinese Medicine

By: Cassandra Krug, L.Ac., Dipl. O.M.  

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August is National Breastfeeding Month and since I am a breastfeeding mama, in a house of two toddlers, it might take me until September to actually get this article out! ;) If you too are sleep-deprived, covered up to your ears in laundry, and wear dried-up, food-shaped fingerprints as clothing accessories, then please know, you are not alone; I understand. The numerous benefits to breastfeeding are a popular topic in conversation; however, breastfeeding is not all glamor and the challenges are not as widely talked about. A few of these include: the pain that comes with sore, cracked, and bleeding nipples, low milk supply, trouble with latching, pumping, engorged breasts, clogged milk ducts, and mastitis. Breastfeeding issues come with a flood of emotions: the worry your baby is not eating enough, the stress your milk supply is low, and the fear of failing your baby. Fortunately, nutrition therapy, acupuncture, and Chinese herbs can help you avoid and treat lactation disorders and lower your stress. There are both infant and maternal benefits to breastfeeding (1).

- Infant Benefits to Breastfeeding Include:

  • Improved health (fewer hospitalizations from illness, fewer ear infections, gastrointestinal tract infections, and respiratory infections)

  • Reduced risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and infant mortality

  • Reduced incidence of clinical asthma, dermatitis, and eczema

  • Reduced chance of developing Celiac Disease

  • Reduction in risk of childhood inflammatory bowel disease

  • Reduced rates of obesity

  • Reduced rates of Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus

  • Protection against childhood leukemia and lymphoma

  • improved cognitive development

- Maternal Benefits to Breastfeeding Include:

  • Decreased postpartum blood loss

  • Rapid involution of the uterus (return of uterus back to pre-pregnancy size)

  • Decreased rate of postpartum depression

  • Bonding between mother and child

  • Protection against: high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, breast, and ovarian cancers. 

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Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory suggests breast milk is created from blood and qi (pronounced "chee" - vital energy). After a baby is born, the blood that once nourished the placenta is transformed to create breast milk. Blood is required to make the milk and qi is required to transform the blood into milk. Lactation disorders including a low milk supply (a deficiency of qi and blood) or a problem with the let-down, meaning the milk is not flowing (stagnation of qi and blood) can occur. A deficiency of qi and blood could be caused by a long and exhausting labor, excessive blood loss during delivery or postpartum, sleep-deprivation, or lack of nutrition. How you nourish yourself through your pregnancy, can also have an affect on your milk production post partum. A stagnation of qi and blood can be caused from emotions such as: stress, depression, frustration, anger, and resentment. It can also be caused by physical pain and inflammation. Stagnation can then lead to breast engorgement, clogged ducts, pain, and mastitis.

As a new mother, sleep and nutrition are important for milk supply. If you are a first time mom and lucky enough to sleep when your baby sleeps, take the opportunity! If you have numerous offers from friends and family to bring you home-cooked meals to freeze and use when needed, take them up on it! If you are a second time mama with toddlers, then naps with baby are a distant, fond memory.  It might also be true that your diet on some days consists of the same cold cup of re-heated coffee (probably still in the microwave), graham crackers, and leftover mac-n-cheese. Try instead, to throw some nutritious foods in a crock pot and let it slow cook all day. Foods that you will want to include in your diet will be rich in iron and vitamin B12 to encourage the production of blood. Nutritious soups, especially bone broth soups are a good option. In addition, choose organic and free range red meats with dark, leafy green vegetables. Eggs, fish, cheese, cherries, dark berries, black beans, dates, lentils, quinoa, and whole grains are other good options. They are said to be blood building foods in Chinese medicine. Drinking plenty of water should also be a daily goal. The amount of food you eat is also important. When pregnant, your protein requirements are 75-90 grams per day. Requirements for breastfeeding are actually higher, 125 grams per day.

Lactation disorders can effectively be treated safely and naturally with acupuncture and Chinese herbs. They are used in conjunction to help boost the production of qi and blood and move stagnation in order to encourage a healthy supply and a free flow of milk. An acupuncture point on the lateral corner of your pinky nail bed (SI 1- Shao Ze) is the empirical point for breast milk production and can be needled or stimulated with moxabustion (herbal mugwort burned over acupuncture points) to help with lactation. A study conducted by Esfahani et al. measured the effect of acupressure on milk volume of breastfeeding mothers and found that routine acupressure at acupuncture points SI1, LI4, and GB21 significantly increased the volume of milk at both two and four weeks post treatment (2). Another study conducted by Sheng PL and Xie QW found that acupuncture had a prolactin-elevating effect suggesting that acupuncture can be used to promote lactation (3). The Chinese herbal formula Xiao Yao San (Bupleurum and Tangkuei Formula) is used to relieve stagnation, as well as tonify qi and blood. Chinese herbs such as Wang Bu Liu Xing (Vaccaria Seed) and Tong Cao (Rice Paper Plant Pith, Tetrapanax) can be added to the formula to maximize effectiveness in increasing milk supply. It is also becoming increasingly popular to encapsulate your placenta after delivery and consume it to improve milk supply, increase libido, improve energy, and decrease postpartum depression. Human placenta is a Chinese herb (Zi He Che) and can be very nourishing to a postpartum mother. The only strong contraindication for encapsulating your placenta is if you had preeclampsia. The hormones in the placenta would continue the preeclampsia condition.

Whether you are a first time mom or a mother of multiple children, we are here to support you through your postpartum journey with acupuncture and Chinese herbs. We can also direct you to other resources in the community for help and support with breastfeeding, and for your overall health and well-being. While TCM can be effective and help relieve lactation disorders, its' effects are holistic and you will find it benefits your sleep, energy, and digestion. It can also help you de-stress. If you are a mother who chooses not to breastfeed, acupuncture can help you through the discomfort of engorged and painful breasts while your milk dries out.

The challenges of breastfeeding can be difficult to overcome and if breastfeeding does not work out, focus on the positive. Take pride in the amazing accomplishment of creating a life. What a miracle! The most important thing now is nourishing yourself and your baby in whatever way works best for your family. There are many options available. In addition to countless formula options, it is also possible to purchase breast milk from donation centers. If you are a mom in need of breast milk, contact your hospital or birth center to provide you with local resources. There are also online breast milk communities where you can purchase milk directly through a donor.

Below is a recipe we recommend to increase your qi and blood and encourage breast milk.

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Chinese Herbal Bone Broth Soup Recipe

  • 2-3 pounds raw bones (lamb, pork, beef, buffalo, poultry)
  • 4-6 quarts water
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 onion (chopped)
  • 1 carrot (chopped)
  • 1 celery stalk with leaves (chopped)
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • .25 ounces Angelica (Dang Gui) to improve immunity, tonify the blood, enhance circulation and decrease pain due to blood stagnation postpartum.
  • .25 ounces of Astragalus (Huang qi) to strengthen your immune system, improve energy, tonify qi and blood and aid in recovery from blood loss.
  • .5 ounces Dioscorea (Shan Yao) to decrease inflammation, aid in repairing tissue, improve strength and regulate blood sugar. Shan yao will also help to alleviate diarrhea, fatigue and spontaneous sweating.
  • 3 slices fresh Ginger root (Sheng Jiang) to enhance digestion, stop nausea, promote circulation, and fight off pathogens.
  • .5 ounces Lotus Seed (Lian zi) to nourish the heart (decrease anxiety and irritability), promote brain health, improve energy and mental alertness.
  • .1 ounce Reishi mushrooms (Ling Zhi) to boost the immune system, improve sleep, decrease palpitations, improve memory, lower blood pressure, and regulate blood sugar.

Combine the water, bones, vinegar, and salt in a slow cooker and cook on low for 24 hours for poultry and 48 hours for larger and denser bones. For the last few hours of cooking add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaves, and Chinese herbs. After cooking, let the broth cool and strain out the ingredients. Discard the bones, herbs, and if desired vegetables. Drink the broth for a nutrient dense boost. One cup per day is recommended. Enjoy! 

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (2017, July 14). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk.Pediatrics, 129, e827–e841. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/3/e827.full.pdf+htm

  2. Esfahani, M. S., Berenji-Sooghe, S., Valiani, M., & Ehsanpour, S. (2015). Effect of acupressure on milk volume of breastfeeding mothers referring to selected health care centers in Tehran. Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research, 20(1), 7–11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25709684

  3. Sheng, PL & Xie QW 1989, ‘Relationship between effect of acupuncture on prolactin secretion and central, catecholamine and R-aminobutyric acid, Acupuncture research, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 446-451, viewed 14 July 2017, http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/2517609