I have two little boys, ages four years and four months. I eat a good diet, drink tons of water, walk each day and do yoga. But waking up for feedings and living with a busy preschooler are wearing me out! What can I take to help sustain my energy and keep my immune system strong while I am breastfeeding?
—L. D., West Hartford, Connecticut
Keville responds: It’s good to keep your immune system strong while under stress. Diet is your first defense, so make sure you eat plenty of foods with the immune-strengthening vitamins A and C. Keep sugars to a minimum. Try to avoid caffeine—I suggest teas of calming herbs such as chamomile (Matricaria recutita), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and catnip (Nepeta cataria). It may seem backward to drink a relaxing brew when you’re seeking more energy, but these herbs help keep your nerves from becoming frayed and help prevent nervous exhaustion.
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.), Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) are some immune herbs that are safe to take while breastfeeding. Siberian ginseng is an adaptogen—an herb that works to bring your entire system into balance. This includes the adrenal glands, which are heavily impacted when you get worn out. Turn to herbs that tone and build adrenal glands, along with the immune system and your liver, because your energy can be sapped when these aren’t operating efficiently. Burdock root (Arctium lappa), nettle (Urtica dioica) and shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes) can be taken as pills, tincture or tea.
Rountree responds: Continue the gentle aerobic exercise and yoga, and I would recommend trying several herbs, either individually or in combination. When taken in the recommended doses, they are all nontoxic and safe to use while breastfeeding. A cup or two of green tea (Camellia sinensis) on arising has just enough caffeine to help get you going without making you anxious. It also has a high concentration of antioxidants, which help regulate immune function. For additional adrenal support, you could add ½ teaspoon of chopped or ground licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) to the tea bag, or chew on a piece of the root throughout the day.
Siberian ginseng is a terrific herbal tonic for increasing stamina, improving physical and mental performance, protecting the liver from toxins, stabilizing blood sugar, and boosting immunity. A typical dose is 2 to 4 g of powdered root or 2 to 3 teaspoons of a 33 percent ethanol extract daily.
Like ginseng, reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) has been a revered Chinese folk medicine used to treat a wide range of health conditions. Besides strengthening the immune system to help resist infections, it protects the nervous system against stress, improves sleep quality, and supports the liver—qualities that make it ideal for supporting a nursing mother. Reishi is best taken in capsules as a hot-water extract standardized to contain a minimum of 4 percent triterpenes and 12 percent polysaccharides. The usual dose is between 1 and 4 g daily. Both Siberian ginseng and reishi can be taken for several months at a time.
Kathi Keville is director of the American Herb Assoc-iation (
) and the author of eleven herb and aromatherapy books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches seminars throughout the United States.
Robert Rountree, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Boulder, Colorado, where he practices integrative medicine. He is coauthor of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child (Avery, 1994) and Immunotics (Putnam, 2000) and is an Herb Research Foundation advisory board member.
The information offered in “Q & A” is not intended to be a substitute for advice from your health-care provider.