When you receive health advice on the Internet, on social media, or even in your social circles, do you question it? Do you check its validity as well as its safety for you? For your children? For your loved ones and even your furry friends?
There are a few things that you need to consider:
1-Is the information accurate? Has it been properly vetted to be sure?
2-Is is safe? Have you checked multiple sources?
3-The information may have worked for that person, do you have medical conditions that they don’t? How about medications, are you taking any medication that may conflict?
In the aromatherapy industry, as well as the herbal industry, advice can be given based on a testimonial. This word, “testimonial”, has become quite a trigger word. Please do not take advice based on “it worked great for me”, or my favorite, “I have been doing it for years and nothing bad has happened to me”. How do they know that exactly? What qualifies them to give that advice? Is a testimonial based on scientific factors or even education? Of course not.
Today I would like to talk about something that happens quite often in the aromatherapy industry, and that is comparing the therapeutic qualities and more importantly safety of an herb compared to its essential oil counterpart.
An administrator of a Facebook group contacted me today to field a comment/bad advice that was given on a thread in her group as she has done dozens of times before. The comment was given on this very question verbatim:
“Any suggestions to up Mama’s milk supply? Thanks in advance”.
This type of question for starters can be tricky all in itself. What is the health of the mother? Any medical issues? Taking any medications? Was the baby full term? Does baby have any issues? …….The comment that threw off the administrator, and rightly so was:
“Fennel essential oil rubbed above the breast”.
Fennel Foeniculum vulgare Essential Oil During Breastfeeding
First and foremost, fennel essential oil is contraindicated during pregnancy as well as lactation. To be clear, according to the Merrium Webster dictionary, a contraindication is: “something (such as a symptom or condition) that makes a particular treatment or procedure inadvisable” (1).Fennel essential oil, specifically the constituent (E)-anethole, is a known hormonal modulator (2). This is essentially a substance that regulates the hormones of the body. Why is this an issue? Much of our body relies on an extremely precise conversation between the central nervous system (CNS) and hormones.
Hormones regulate essentially all body functions, for the purposes of this article I will focus on reproductive functions.
Hormonal changes associated with our moon cycle may bring about the following temporary conditions: tender nipples, irritability, unsettled feeling, or increased moodiness in mother, headaches (often associated with PMS), a slight dip in milk supply (usually not a big problem), slight change in taste of mother’s milk, (depends on the nursling whether or not this will cause an aversion to nursing), and the hormone prolactin that is responsible for mother’s letdown and overall production of milk, enabling her to feed her nursling (3).
You can compare this hormonal modulation to the birth control pill. Doctors will not place you on a birth control pill containing estrogen as a newly lactating mother, simply because of the altering of hormones. An OB/GYN doctor will typically prescribe a progesterone only pill, or recommend waiting all-together, as there are so many unknowns involved during this time. I speak from experience in these areas. Any mother that is sensitive to a shift in hormones due to specific cancers, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids can be placed under higher risk here (4).
Robert Tisserand stated in his recent book, Essential Oil Safety 2e (2014), that fennel essential oil may also be carcinogenic based on its estragole content (fennel contains up to 5% estragole) See noted pages below for your review (5).
Whether or not fennel essential oil even has the capability to increase milk production is a moot point, as safety or in this case lack of safety for mom and baby, outweigh any possible, potential benefit.
What About Fennel The Herb?
Fennel, the herbal counterpart, appears to carry with it a certain amount of risk as well. According to WebMD:
“during breast-feeding, fennel is POSSIBLY UNSAFE. It’s been reported that two breast-feeding infants experienced damage to their nervous systems after their mothers drank an herbal tea that contained fennel”.
Is this a stretch? Possibly..maybe…(6)
WebMD also states that fennel IS likely safe when consumed in amounts found in food (7). So keep in mind, when consuming fennel herb to increase milk supply, it can be in amounts found larger than what one would consume in food.
They go on to further say avoid fennel in these instances:
“Bleeding disorders: Fennel might slow blood clotting. Taking fennel might increase the risk of bleeding or bruising in people with bleeding disorders. Hormone-sensitive conditions such as breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, endometriosis, or uterine fibroids: Fennel might act like estrogen. If you have any condition that might be made worse by exposure to estrogen, do not use fennel” (8).
I felt that it was important to address this topic in more detail as it is shared so easily without much understanding of the safety issues involved. It is recommended to avoid fennel essential oil during pregnancy and lactation, and utilize caution with the herb in levels more than what would typically be consumed in food. Congratulations to all mom’s out there embarking on a beautiful time with your new little bundle of joy. Stay tuned for future articles on what IS considered a safe way to increase mother’s milk. Until then, stay safe!
(1) (5) Tisserand, R., Young, R., Essential Oil Safety2e (2014) (p277-278)
(2) Definition of a contraindication: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contraindication
(3) About Hormone Imbalance. Retrieved from
(4) Fennel: https://www.uwhealth.org/health/topic/multum/fennel/d04493a1.html
(6) (7) (8) WebMD Fennel. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-311-fennel.aspx?activeingredientid=311&activeingredientname=fennel
Like so many practices in life I encourage you to become educated on the proper use of essential oils. When using them, please do so cautiously, understanding that there is often misinformation on the internet. You can be assured that I support only educated and proven resources. While essential oils should not be feared they should be respected and used properly to ensure the safety of the individuals using them.
Please note that I am not a medical practitioner. The content of this website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for, professional medical advice. Do not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating any medical or health condition. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. By using this website, you assume full responsibility and liability for your own actions.