Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is quite a common hormonal disorder affecting fertility and general health for up to 15% of women 1. Originally known as Stein-Leventhal Syndrome, it encompasses a group of symptoms (a syndrome) and different symptoms might be seen in different women. Common issues include high levels of male hormones (androgens), irregular ovulation and periods, multiple cysts on the ovaries, infertility, and about half of all cases are linked to obesity. Various hormones can be affected and there is an increased risk of developing diabetes, hypertension, unusual breast development and other health issues:
PCOS often causes higher levels of androgens (male hormones), oestrogen, cholesterol, and insulin (due to insulin resistance); it also causes lower progesterone (due to lack of ovulation) and disrupts other reproductive hormones as well. Hypothyroidism may also be present.
PCOS and breastfeeding
Due to the hormonal disruption, some women with PCOS may have insufficient glandular tissue (IGT) or problems with their milk supply 2. As there are many other factors that can contribute to a low milk supply including poor breastfeeding management, it is important not to assume the cause is PCOS without checking for other Reasons for Low Milk Supply. Your IBCLC lactation consultant will be a great support to help you with latch, breastfeeding position, getting off to a good start and knowing How to Make More Breast Milk. Planning for an active labour and natural birth can also avoid any delays in your milk coming in. The ways PCOS can sometimes influence milk production are summed up in the following excerpt:
some women with PCOS may have more difficulty producing adequate milk because the breast tissue fails to undergo the normal physiological changes during pregnancy needed to prepare for lactation or perhaps because not enough breast tissue existed prior to pregnancy. Women with PCOS have low levels of progesterone, which is needed for alveolar growth and breast tissue development. Insulin also plays a role in milk production, and having insulin resistance [a side effect of PCOS] may contribute to lactation problems in women with PCOS.
Making more milk with PCOS
If PCOS seems to be the likely explanation for your low milk supply, addressing any underlying hormonal imbalances with your doctors i.e. levels of male hormones, insulin resistance, prolactin or thyroid levels will be important. In addition to the suggestions in How to Make More Breast Milk using galactagogues (special foods, herbs or medications) has helped some mothers increase their milk supply. There is an overview of popular herbs and medications that may help milk production in What is a Galactagogue? Although some galactogenic herbs are well known—such as fenugreek—there are many others. Some are said to specifically help with hormonal imbalance such as shatavari (also known as wild asparagus—see Lactmed) or promote development of glandular tissue for example goat’s rue (see below) making these of particular interest to mothers with PCOS and low milk supply.
Some herbs, foods and medications that may be useful for polycystic ovary syndrome and breastfeeding include:
Authors Wambach and Riordan describe metformin as the drug of choice for treating PCOS, saying it can help mothers conceive, reduce early miscarriage and gestational diabetes, and doesn’t appear to cause birth abnormalities 3. With regard to breastfeeding however, they cite a study by Vanky et al 4 that suggested metformin had no impact on milk supply. In contrast, West and Marasco believe metformin can help some women’s breastmilk supply:
There has been informal feedback that [metformin] has helped some women significantly, some modestly and some not at all. Dosages vary, typically starting at 500 milligrams and working up to 1,000 to 2,500 milligrams daily; if you have taken metformin previously, ask your doctor about trying the dosage that was initially needed to improve your symptoms.
E-lactancia rates the use of metformin during lactation as being “very low risk” to the breastfed baby 5 and you can read more about the safety of metformin in lactation at Lactmed (search “metformin”).
Domperidone (Motilium) is a prescription medicine historically used for controlling sickness, indigestion and reflux in some countries (not available in U.S.). It can help milk supply in some mothers by indirectly increasing prolactin levels (a hormone involved in milk production). Safety concerns about the drug have restricted its use recently. However, some physicians have spoken out about these restrictions 6 7 and see The National Infant Feeding Network statement The Use of Domperidone in Inadequate Lactation (2014) and The Breastfeeding Network’s statement Domperidone and Breastfeeding. Jack Newman, a Canadian paediatrician and breastfeeding author has a fact sheet on domperidone which may be useful to discuss with your own doctors. E-lactancia rates the use of domperidone during lactation as being “very low risk” to the breastfed baby 8.
Treating women with myo-inositol or DCI has been shown to reduce androgen levels, help restore ovulatory function, lower blood pressure, and decrease triglyceride levels.
Malunggay (Moringa oleifera) or drumstick tree
Moringa is a nutritious tree native to India and grown in tropical areas. It is used as an important food source in many countries and its leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, seeds, and root are used to make medicine.
Malunggay may have a similar effect to domperidone on milk production see Lactmed ( search “moringa”) for references and a discussion of the research. E-lactancia rates the use of malunggay during lactation as being “very low risk” to the breastfed baby 13.
Goat’s rue (Galega officinalis)
West and Marasco, 2009 (p133) suggest that goat’s rue is especially suited for low milk production related to PCOS. They explain that it contains galegin which is the herb that metformin was originally developed from. Lactmed cautions:
Although it has a long history of use as a galactogogue, very limited scientific data exist on the safety and efficacy of goat’s rue in nursing mothers or infants. In general, goat’s rue is well tolerated, but it might cause hypoglycemia, so caution should be used in women taking antidiabetic drugs.
E-lactancia rates the use of goat’s rue during lactation as being “high risk” to the breastfed baby 14.
Other herbs for polycystic ovaries and breastfeeding
There are many more herbs considered useful for increasing milk supply. The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk has more detailed information including:
Saw palmetto is reputed to reduce excessive body hair, a symptom of high testosterone. One PCOS mother who tried saw palmetto reported a tripling of her low milk production. Chasteberry has long been used for PCOS and for milk production, and a few PCOS mothers feel it has helped them, but it must be dosed carefully by an herbal practitioner as too much may decrease prolactin.
Supplementing at the breast
While your situation may not enable exclusive breastfeeding, the suggestions above will help maximise your supply and you may be interested to explore a way of supplementing your baby via a thin tube at your breast instead of a bottle—see Supplementing at the Breast and Homemade Supplemental Nursing System.
Mothers with PCOS have an increased risk of diabetes—increasing the genetic risk of diabetes for their babies. The Australian Breastfeeding Association explains how breastfeeding can help both mother and baby:
Women with PCOS have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, later in life. As well, babies born to mothers with PCOS have an increased genetic risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Since breastfeeding helps to protect a mother and her baby from developing type 2 diabetes later in life, this makes breastfeeding for a mother with PCOS of particular importance.
In Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and Breastfeeding (from Mobi Motherhood), the authors discuss more of the symptoms and associated disorders of PCOS. They include a detailed explanation of how PCOS can reduce milk supply, tips for dealing with sugar cravings, diet, useful books, stress management and more suggestions for herbs that may help with milk supply.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) can affect 15% of women. Due to disruption of hormones, some women with this syndrome may have insufficient glandular tissue (IGT) or problems with their milk supply. There are several medications, herbs and foods reputed to be helpful for low milk supply associated with PCOS. Always discuss taking herbs or medications with your health professional.
The information above should not be construed as medical advice. Always discuss taking any herbs or medications with your doctors and check the latest research on side effects and compatibility with breastfeeding in resources such as Lactmed, Medications and Mothers’ Milk Online [paywall] and e-lactancia.