For the past five months, I have been exclusively breastfeeding my son. Being the sole source of nutritional nourishment for another person, I’ve learned during this time, is only possible if I am well-nourished myself. This has led me to explore what foods, herbs, food sadhanas, and other practices I can use to cultivate my own vitality. I thought I would take this opportunity, at this transitional moment when I am just beginning to introduce my son to solid foods, to share some of the knowledge I’ve acquired during the past five months about self-nourishment while breastfeeding.
This post reflects my own understanding based on my research and experiences, and and is by no means comprehensive or ideal for everyone. I’d recommend referring to the resources section at the end for books that you can use to develop your own knowledge about this topic and determine which foods, herbs, and practices would work best for your constitution and lifestyle.
Ayurvedic Recommendations for Breastfeeding Women
Breastfeeding is understood in Ayurveda to be a pleasurable experience and an opportunity for the mother and baby to exchange energies and get to know one another. It is also thought, though, to carry the risk of depleting a woman’s ojas, the vital life fluids which feed the body’s tissues and help maintain vitality, immunity, and radiance. Ojas is absolutely critical for well-being; Vasant Lad and David Frawley describe ojas as “the energy and love contained in a living system.” For this reason, it is important for breastfeeding women to eat foods that build ojas.
The best foods are sattvic foods, which give the body proper, deep nourishment. Sattvic foods include fresh fruits and cooked vegetables, especially sweet, root vegetables; certain whole grains; soaked dates, figs, and raisins; and soaked nuts, especially cashews and almonds. According to Robin Lim’s After the Baby’s Birth: A Woman’s Way to Wellness, our bodies are more efficient at producing ojas when we meditate or pray, so it is ideal for breastfeeding mothers to combine eating a sattvic diet with a regular spiritual practice, both to ensure their own nourishment and to produce the most nourishing breast milk.
Additionally, breastfeeding women should generally avoid rajasic, or stimulating foods, as well as tamasic foods, foods which produce inertia and dullness. Rajasic foods include meat, alcohol, fish, eggs, and very spicy foods. Tamasic foods include processed, stale, or leftover foods. It is also strongly recommended to avoid hard to digest foods, fermented foods* caffeine, and cold drinks.
Ayurvedic Diets for Vegan Mothers
Many Ayurvedic recipes for sattvic dishes, especially postpartum recipes, include ghee or clarified butter, and breastfeeding mothers are strongly encouraged, in Ayurveda, to drink milk. I eat a vegan diet, though, as part of my practice of ahimsa, or non-violence, so before giving birth I visited an Ayurvedic practitioner, Christine Hoar, who provided me with Ayurvedic vegan recipes that did not include ghee or milk, but would still help with postpartum healing and to support breastfeeding. In addition to the recipes she provided, which I found very grounding and fortifying, I also have referred to The Ayurvedic Vegan Kitchen by Talya Lutzger and Ayurveda: A Life of Balance by Maya Tiwari, which both have excellent vegan recipes for ojas-building dishes. There are also many good vegan sattvic food recipes in Yoga: Holistic Practice Manual by Yogi Shanti Desai.
Breastfeeding and the Vegan Diet from a Western Perspective
There are a few additional resources that I would recommend for vegan mothers who are seeking information from a Western nutritionist perspective on how to eat healthily during pregnancy and breastfeeding: 1) Vegan for Life, by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina; 2) Vegan for Her by Virginia Messina; and 3) Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide by Sayward Rebhal. Vegan for Life has a chapter on “A Healthy Start: Vegan Diets in Pregnancy and Breastfeeding” that includes a chart of nutrition recommendations for non-pregnant, pregnant, and breastfeeding women, as well as a sample menus. Vegan for Her has a chapter on “Growing New Vegans: Nutrition for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding.” And Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide has lots of practical tips on how to maintain a vegan lifestyle during pregnancy and early motherhood.
How Much to Eat
The reading I’ve done has suggested that women need to increase their caloric consumption significantly when breastfeeding, even more than during pregnancy. Robin Lim suggests, that breastfeeding women need between 1,000 to 3,500 additional calories a day. I didn’t increase my caloric consumption initially because before and while I was pregnant I was doing a relatively rigorous yoga practice, and I cut back on this practice significantly after the birth of the baby, and I assumed that the decrease in exercise would mean I would not need to eat more. I found, though, that even with the decrease in exercise, I returned to my postpartum weight very quickly after the baby was born, and needed to increase my food consumption in order to maintain that weight. As Robin Lim says, “Appetite is greatly increased while you breastfeed. You’re hungry because you need to eat more. Listen carefully to what your body tells you.”
Foods and Herbs that Increase Milk Flow
Some women are concerned about whether or not they are producing enough milk. There are a number of foods that are considered galactagogues, which means they increase the flow of milk, that can be very helpful for these women to eat while breastfeeding. Many of the foods that are considered sattvic in Ayurveda also are thought to increase milk flow, including figs, dates, and almonds. In Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year, Western herbalist Susan Weed recommends apricots, asparagus, green beans, carrots, sweet potatoes, peas, pecans, and leafy greens. Women I know have recommended oats, papaya, and barley to me.
There are also many herbs that are galactagogues. Susan Weed recommends blessed thistle leaves, borage leaves, fennel/barley water, and hops flowers as galactagogues. Aviva Jill Romm, in Natural Health After Birth, recommends blessed thistle, dandelion leaf, fennel, fenugreek, nettle, saw palmetto, and vervain, among others. The Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide recommends alfalfa, anise, asparagus, blessed thistle, brewer’s yeast, fennel, fenugreek, flax, hops, oats, parsley, and red raspberry leaf. And Shatavari is an excellent galactagogue from the Ayurvedic tradition.
Also, staying properly hydrated is critical to breast milk production; a general rule of thumb is to drink a glass of water each time you nurse the baby. It’s best to avoid cold beverages, so this water should be room temperature or warm. You can also replace several of these classes of water with a cup of tea or an herbal infusion. The herbs section below provides recommendations of herbal teas and infusions that support breastfeeding. Coconut water is also an excellent way to stay hydrated.
Lastly, it’s important to note that according to Ayurveda, grief, anger, fasting, and exertion can cause breast milk to become deficient, and happiness, love, and rest increase breast milk. So a diet that supports lactation and proper hydration can best be supported by getting plenty of rest, engaging in activities that make you feel happy, and practicing santosha, or contentment.
Herbs to Nourish the Breastfeeding Mother
In addition to galactagogue herbs, there are also herbs that can be used to support the emotional well-being and nutritional needs of the nursing mother. Nettle is well-known as a nourishing herb and is included in many postpartum tea blends. Deb Soule’s Healing Herbs for Women recommends a blend of lavender, chamomile, catnip, lemon balm, and lady’s mantle as a postpartum relaxation tea. Susan Weed recommends chamomile, motherwort, skullcap, and hops flowers for exhaustion and tension.
Yogic and Ayurvedic Recommendations about Food Sadhanas
Also, an important tenet in both yoga and Ayurveda is that eating should be done in a quiet, peaceful, and harmonious environment. It is thought that eating in a loud or stressful environment can disrupt the digestive process, and also that the body absorbs and digests and emotions that are experienced during eating, so having negative emotions while eating could be harmful to the system. It is especially important for breastfeeding mothers to eat mindfully, because the positive nourishment they receive by eating in this way will be passed on to the baby through their energy and breast milk. It is also important for the baby to eat in a peaceful setting, ideally when the mother is feeling happy and contented.
Breastfeeding can be a truly transformative experience in that being the sole source of nourishment for another human being is a tremendous responsibility, and one that cannot be carried out unless you are also deeply nourishing yourself. It demands that we become very mindful of how we can best cultivate the ojas, the energy and love in our bodies, so that we can offer it to another person. And in that sense, breastfeeding is a deep spiritual practice, an opportunity to give of ourselves in a profound way.
Lim, Robin. After the Baby’s Birth: A Woman’s Way to Wellness. Berkely, California: Celestial Arts, 1991.
Rebhal, Sayward. Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide. United States; Herbivore Books, 2013.
Romm, Aviva Jill. Natural Health after Birth. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2002.
Soule, Deb. Healing Herbs for Women. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.
Tirtha, Swami Sadashiva. The Ayurveda Encyclopedia. Unadilla, New York: Ayurveda Holistic Center Press, 2007.
Weed, Susan. The Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year. Woodstock, New York: Ash Tree Publishing, 1986.
Wesson, Nicky. Natural Mothering. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1997.
* It should be noted that while Ayurveda cautions against postpartum women eating fermented foods, some Western nutritionists recommend it. The Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide points out that fermented foods contain probiotics, which help digestive health and improve immune function.