Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beer as a Galactagogue – A Brief History


Does beer increase milk supply, and if so, which kinds?

More than three thousand years ago, Sumerians and Egyptians brewed beer-like alcoholic beverages based on barley--the most lactogenic, milk-supply boosting grain. According to pictorial hieroglyphs, women and slaves were involved in the labor of large scale beer production. Later, in Greek and Roman times, barley was just one of many ingredients that were freely combined in a variety of alcoholic recipes. When these ingredients were strongly lactogenic, the effect would have been noticed by breastfeeding women. The Greek doctor Dioscorides (1st century C.E. in Rome) records an alcoholic recipe to increase milk supply that was made with dried black figs, freshly pressed grapes, fennel and thyme. The Greek surgeon Antyllus (2nd century C.E. in Rome), mentions a fermented grain beverage that was combined with the crushed unripe seeds of the sesame plant and crushed palm dates. In all likelihood, these recipes were just two of many. Lactogenic ingredients would have been mixed and matched in alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and enjoyed by breastfeeding mothers across the ancient world.

Non-alcoholic brews with barley were also used in ancient times to support milk production--and when barley is processed this way, it is largely gluten-free. More more information, see this article.
 
During the ensuing Dark Ages, when the skills and knowledge of the ancient world were largely forgotten, the art of brewing was kept alive in monasteries. Eventually, however, with the growth of farmsteads, brewing techniques again 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. 

Across Europe, beer-like beverages using barley and other grains were brewed with a range of herbs added in for their taste and medicinal properties.  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, and were probably added in when the brewster was breastfeeding. Less well known is that mind-altering, narcotic herbs might also be used; such drinks were later ascribed to the practice of witchcraft and forbidden.

Hops flowers, a bitter, relaxing herb that eventually became standard for brewing, is a potent, 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 supposed to have strongly advocated for hops as a standard ingredient in beer. My guess is that Hildegard knew exactly what she was doing for breastfeeding women. Thank you, Hilde!

For several centuries in early European civilization, brewing remained domestic work, and eventually 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 were sensitized to the profit potential of brewing. They passed laws that successfully suppressed these small family businesses: recipes were strictly regulated, and fees and fines imposed. Brewing became impractical for small domestic breweries and pub houses, and the way was free for large industrial breweries that have prospered to the present day. 

Guinness, one of these breweries, produces stout that is made not only  with barley malt, but also the barley grain. The added grain makes the stout "silkier" and "thicker" due to  beta-glucan, the lactogenic substance in barley. It makes perfect sense that Guinness is the commercial beer most frequently recommended today by breastfeeding mothers, as it is one of the very few to still contain beta-glucan. (See my article Malt as a Galactagogue for more information on beta-glucan in brewing.)

Beginning in the early 1500s, German law limited the ingredients for  beer to barley, hops, yeast, and water. There were reasons for this that went beyond taste preferences. By limiting the grain used to barley, and prohibiting the use of wheat, more wheat was available for baking bread. But limiting production this way also forced various other types of beer into obscurity, and it formed a protective barrier to the importation of foreign beer. These restrictions would influence the international production of beer, as brewers in neighboring countries conformed to the restrictions of the large German market. 

Today, almost all major brewers incorporate ingredients such as corn, rice, wheat or oats into their brews. Luckily for breastfeeding mothers, the “pure” ingredients defined by German-type beer, barley, barley malt, hops and yeast, are intensely lactogenic.

Beer – A Historic Galactagogue

Alcohol is an 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 during approximately four hours after drinking. Because of the back-up of milk, the breast feels fuller, fooling the mother into believing she is  producing more. And because her baby drinks longer (milk flow is reduced, so it requires more time for baby to remove milk from the breast) the mother believes that her baby is drinking more. 

However, if, as in traditional beer, significant amounts of lactogenic ingredients are used in brewing, these  ingredients may prevail over the effect of the alcohol, and more milk be made.

I have ascertained that this is likely to be true by reading along in forums for exclusively pumping mothers. These pumping mothers will not be fooled by how their breasts feel or how long their baby drinks, and they report that by drinking one glass of beer 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 and stronger let-downs at the pump that same evening. Clearly, something in the beer is over-riding the let-down inhibition of alcohol. I would encourage mothers to try locally produced stout beer made with barley or oats, to support their local breweries. (See my newer article The Best Beer for Breastfeeding Women for a concise guide.)
Historically, the beer used by mothers to increase their supply was nutritionally rich and low in alcohol. 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, historical 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. These beers can lead to a decrease in supply! Non-alcoholic beer, however, especially if rich in barley or hops, can be a good galactogogue.


Malt Beer 



During the 19th century, "temperance movements" formed in many countries around the world to discourage the use of alcohol. As a 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.

Today, many new brands of malt-beer are available commercially, the best known of which is Guinness Malta. Malt beers are very popular in South America, Africa and Israel. Many mothers swear that Malta helps support their supply.

For more information about malt-beer and malt as a galactagogue, and about how malt  has changed from yesteryear, and how that may affect the lactogenicity of beer, see my next article Malt as a Galactagogue .



Please comment here and share your own experiences with beer. Thank you for reading! 

Please like my Facebook Mother Food Page, and stay in touch. More articles are in the works!

Disclaimer: History is amazingly complex and any "brief history" is a simplification. If you would like to enrich my knowledge base, please email me at hilary@mother-food.com (email not linked to avoid spam). Much appreciated!

31 comments:

  1. Excellent article!! I wonder if the Nahrbier is available anywhere?

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  2. Thank you! Nahrbier was "transformed" into malt beverages, and some are available today. Not the same thing, of course. You might check your local markets to see if any malt-based, beer-like beverages are for sale. Sometimes small breweries produce and sell such drinks locally. I have some research on this as well that may find its way into an article some day.

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  3. great article thank you for sharing!

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  4. Awesome! Beer is especially helpful in the early days after my kids are born, when I'm stressed and can't get my milk to let down. It has just enough alcohol to relax me so that it lets down. I typically enjoy a Guinness or oatmeal stout in the evening, as a nutritional supplement, of course. ;) Guinness does make a non-alcoholic beer called Kaliber (sp?). These beers are also high in iron.

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  5. Thank you! It is interesting how some doctors recommend beer in the early postpartum. That's a typical practice in Germany. One has to wonder what they "know" (have experienced, or were told). BTW, dark beers are not really high in iron - that was propaganda put out by the Irish gov to support Guinness - an example of government collusion with a corporation, been going on a long time. So dark beer will not help with anemia, unless you have copper-deficiency anemia, as it does contain a lot of copper. See my blog post on this :).

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    1. I am from Germany and you are absolutely correct when I had my daughter 26 years ago my doctor told me if I wanted to breastfeed to drink at least one bottle of Malzbier. A lady who was in the hospital with me drank alot more than one and she produced alot of milk.

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  6. Nice work,thanks! I wonder if that Nährbier thing is the same as what used to be called "bière de nourrice" ("wet nurse beer") in French?
    For postpartum energy and lactation, nothing beats placenta...

    Violaine -beer, 20 years and counting; breastfeeding 5 years and counting.

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  7. Thanks, Violaine. Nice bit of information. I should add in a paragraph at the end about malt beers, which is what the Nährbier morphed into commercially, and that is very lactogenic. YES to the placenta as galactagogue.

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  8. Very interesting! Too bad I don't like beer...I sure wish red wine was a galactogogue!

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  9. Thanks! Red wine, yum, we can find other good reasons for drinking it... helps prevent gum disease. There you go!

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  10. Hilary, an insightful and well thought out article as usual, thanks for sharing!

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  11. This helped information helped me in many ways, too many to list and I tend to ramble ;) I was wondering about the difference in drinking beer with food? Is there any info on drinking a beer with dinner as compared to drinking it without food? Does the alcohol affect your milk-ejection refex the same since we metabolize alcohol differently depending if we drink on an empty stomach or not.

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  12. Hi Amber, so happy the info helped you. No official studies on taking beer with food to without food, and I'm sure it's important not to drink it on an empty stomach. I would think that the sudden surge of alcohol (without food) would have a stronger inhibitory effect on the let-down reflex, but that's speculation for now. I'm working on an article that will give more "how to" info. Send me your story and questions privately, if you'd like. I'll be happy to read your rambling.

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  13. I figured that drinking with food would be the obvious thing, but that doesn't fit well into that 4 hour window of possible lowered lactation. It's my observation that some moms have a drink after the kids go to sleep, so it's more likely that they would be drinking on an emptyish stomach. Hmmm. I can't figure out how to email you privately. I've fallen behind on my computer savy since having my littles :) I would love to pick your brain!

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  14. the scale of research for this article is huge.Very useful thx.

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  15. @ amber - glad you contacted me privately, hope things are working out for you now.

    @ Seltenet, thank you. I've lived with the material for a few decades now so am in a position to connect some dots :) More in the works!

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  16. I know this article/post is old so I am not sure if i will get a response, but what about home brewed beer?

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    1. Sorry, I've been vfb ... that means, vacationing from blogging. :) Yes, home-brewed beer is a good choice, especially if you add in flakes of the grain as for stout and if you add in some nice potent hops flowers. I have never done it but I believe some experimentation would reveal good results.

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  17. Beer can be brewed at home at to be more lactogenic. I do not personally have experience, but what I understand is that the recipes for stout that include raw barley flakes or raw oats flakes are the most efficacious. Good helpings of hops are also helpful. Let me know if you experiment and what the nursing mom finds out! Thanks.

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  18. Well this is a unique study that i ever heard about mothers diet, I also agreed with Hilary.

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  19. Hi. This article was very enlightening. Pls does guiness malta contain barley? U mentioned in ur article on malt that, malt brewers hd remuvd barley frm the recipe. Wud rily love 2 improve my milk supply. Am frm nigeria btw so brewin at home aint feasible ere. Luv 2 hear frm u, thanks

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    1. It is my understanding that all these malt drinks do contain barley, but if they don't put ingredients on the label, you can't control if they stretch it with corn syrup. You will surely have your own traditional herbs that are good for supply. I remember reading once about Nigeria having very strong herbs that are used in food that are helpful. Ask the older women. Good luck to you.

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  20. Great information! I'm going to get some guiness stout tonight and see how it goes. How long after drinking should I wait to pump?

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    1. I would wait about three hours. I believe you'll see the best effect from it the next morning and day. The idea is to take it after pumping or breastfeeding in the evening, wait a few hours, feed a bit at night as needed. The major effect should be seen the next day, from what I've been told. Good luck. It doesn't work for everyone, and if you have true chronic low milk supply issues, there are better, more tried-and-sure galactagogues to try.

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  21. My son is almost 11 months, and we just did a cross country move that inhibited my extra pumping session for the last month. I am having reduced output due to that and starting back my cycle. Think a Guinness will bring it back, or is it too late at this stage/age?

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    1. It is not too late. Take your time, relax into it, increase you use of lactogenic foods and herbs, add in your pumping again, take a calcium/magnesium supplement pre-menstruation. This is all described in my book, and you can find peer support at mobi on yahoogroups, and other sources online.

      Your baby will soon be eating more so that a reduced supply will suffice to meet his needs. If you can, add in dandelion greens and lots of fresh greens into your diet, this is a good time of year for it.

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  22. Hi! Nice article. So apparently, my pump broke and I am having low milk supply for my 18 month old. I just bought a new pump and mother's milk tea. I will be looking for Guinness to help me with my milk. Thanks a lot for sharing.

    Bottoms up Mommas!

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