January 27, 2013

Is Peppermint Safe while Breastfeeding?

The first place I remember reading that peppermint (Mentha x piperita) oil may be contraindicated for nursing mothers was in Sheila Humphrey’s The Nursing Mother’s Herbal (a favorite of mine, by the way).

In this text, Humphrey mentions a case study involving a mother who eats large amounts of Altoids and experiences a decline in milk supply. Other resources & websites also refer to vague anecdotal evidence suggesting that too much peppermint will decrease supply in breastfeeding women. So far, I haven’t been able to find any actual case studies related to peppermint and breastfeeding, so I’m wondering if all of this stems from one instance.

I also ran across vague suggestions that peppermint has traditionally been used to decrease milk supply. A (very) preliminary search did not turn up much – I looked through many of the Eclectic & Physiomedicalist texts on Henriette’s Herbal homepage, in Mrs. Grieve’s Modern Herbal and so forth – none mention this use. In Nature’s Children Juliette de Bairacli Levi mentions using “mints” during weaning, but that’s all I could find.

If anyone has come across any other historical references to peppermint or other mints being used to lower milk supply or during weaning, please pass them along!

I haven’t been able to come up with a good reason to explain why peppermint oil might inhibit milk supply, so I decided to turn to PubMed to see if I could find any additional info. I found absolutely nothing relating to peppermint and milk supply – no case studies, nothing whatsoever – but I did run across some very interesting info on peppermint water and peppermint gel being applied topically for prevention of nipple cracking & pain in early breastfeeding. 

One study found that the gel was significantly more effective than lanolin or placebo at preventing nipple cracking in first time moms over the first 14 days (Melli, Rashidi, Nokhoodchi et al, 2007). Another study found breastfeeding women who applied peppermint water (tea?) topically were less likely to experience cracked nipples and pain than women who applied expressed breast milk topically (Melli, Rashidi, Delazar et al, 2007).   So what do I make of all this?

Take-Away Points about Peppermint & Breastfeeding:

  1. It’ s unclear if and how peppermint affects milk supply. There are no published case studies and there is no obvious mechanism of action. The anecdotal data suggests that the essential oil is problematic. Should nursing moms avoid the plant? To be on the safe side, I would avoid using higher doses of peppermint essential oil internally. This is particularly relevant for people with IBS who might be using peppermint oil or those with very high intake of strong peppermint candies.  Preparations such as teas and tinctures made from the leaves seem much less likely to be detrimental. The essential oil doesn’t extract well in tea anyway, depending on how you prepare it (decoction, infusion, lid on or off, time steeping, etc), so I’m particularly comfortable with mint teas during lactation.
  1. It is worth considering peppermint gel or infusion topically the first few days of breastfeeding to prevent nipple cracking & pain. Anything is worth a try as those days are very hard and anything you can do to make them easier will be welcomed. (Note that if you do this, it’s important to wipe the gel off before baby nurses, as the scent can interfere with nursing and we don’t want baby to be ingesting peppermint oil.)
  1. We need to publish more case studies! If anyone has direct knowledge of a case of a nursing mother’s supply decreasing in response to peppermint oil – or any other peppermint or mint preparation – please consider writing up your findings. It’s important to have this information in the scientific literature so that it’s available more widely in the community; additionally, such information can provide a basis for more in-depth research in the future.

I’d love to hear your thoughts below, especially if you have experience with peppermint and breastfeeding!

About Camille Freeman, LDN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for highly-trained herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.

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