When it comes to which food and drinks are safe to enjoy, breastfeeding isn’t quite as limiting as the pregnancy that came before it. Breastfeeding moms can safely enjoy some things pregnant people tend to avoid, like turkey sandwiches from the deli, fresh sushi, and even a glass of wine. But when it comes to the safety of supplements while breastfeeding, things can definitely feel a little more confusing, and just because an herbal supplement is available over the counter doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe to use while breastfeeding. The postpartum period can be stressful and even anxiety ridden, and — particularly if this Ayurvedic herb has helped you destress before — you might be wondering if it’s safe to take ashwagandha while breastfeeding. The guidance on things like vitamins and supplements while breastfeeding aren’t always incredibly clear, which can be frustrating. Without a call to your OB-GYN, you might be feeling left in the dark. While a call to your doctor to be sure is always your best bet, we also spoke to some experts about the general safety of ashwagandha while breastfeeding.
What is ashwagandha?
Especially if you’re invested in wellness culture on social media platforms like Instagram, you’ve likely heard of ashwagandha. This trendy Ayuverdic herb is believed to have a host of benefits, but actually, experts don’t know a lot about it.
Ashwagandha is a shrub that is native to India, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. It produces yellow flowers and scarlet-colored berries. “The root, leaves, and berries of this plant can be used medicinally as an adaptogen,” says Kendra Clifford, naturopathic doctor and practicing birth doula. “Adaptogens are defined as herbal medicines that help your body handle stress.”
Is ashwagandha safe when breastfeeding?
Due in large part to a lack of research and hard data, it is difficult for health care professionals to say definitively whether or not ashwagandha is safe when breastfeeding. “Like many other herbs, ashwagandha is currently listed as ‘unsafe due to lack of evidence’ with regards to breastfeeding,” Clifford explains. “However, this is at least in part due to the ethical-moral implications of performing research studies on pregnant or lactating women.”
Without any valid trials that clearly show the usefulness or safety of ashwaganda for a breastfeeding person, it’s nearly impossible to measure how much of the active ingredients in this herb cross into breast milk, explains Kairis Chiaji, a doula working with Blue Shield. “The risk would come with the inability to control or predict the side effects in adults or the newborn. And while not common, they can be severe. There are medical conditions that make it absolutely contraindicated, like diabetes. There are other ingredients in supplements that can vary by the brand or source that parents should also take into consideration,” she says. It’s worth noting that ashwagandha supplements are not regulated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA).
With all of these qualifiers in mind, Clifford notes that Ashwagandha is extremely popular and commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine. “It has been used in pregnant and lactating women for centuries,” she says.”
Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. A 2020 review of 69 studies found that ashwagandha may be a safe and effective traditional medicine for the management of schizophrenia, chronic stress, insomnia, anxiety, memory/cognitive enhancement, obsessive-compulsive disorder, rheumatoid arthritis, type-2 diabetes, and male infertility. The same review notes that “properly designed, randomized-controlled, large-size, prospective trails with standardized preparations are needed” in order to really know more about ashwagandha safety and benefits.
Other benefits of ashwagandha may include:
- Reduced stress and anxiety: A small 2019 study looked at 58 people who took ashwagandha for eight weeks had significantly reduced levels of stress compared to the placebo. Another small 2019 study of 60 people found that those who took ashwagandha for 60 days had significantly less anxiety than those who took the placebo.
- Enhance physical performance: A review of 12 studies found that daily ashwagandha use may enhance physical performance during exercise.
- Reduce symptoms of mental health conditions, like depression and schizophrenia: One 2018 study looked at the effects of ashwagandha in 66 people with schizophrenia who also had depression and anxiety, and found that patients who took the herb daily for 12 weeks had less depression and anxiety than those who took a placebo.
- Reduce inflammation: Research has found that the herb has compounds that could help reduce inflammation in the body.
- Improve sleep: A 2020 study looked at 50 adults ages 65-80 who took ashwagandha for 12 weeks, and found that they had significantly improved quality of sleep and mental alertness upon waking up than those who took a placebo.
Ashwagandha breastfeeding dosage
Since it’s hard to say whether or not ashwagandha is safe while breastfeeding, both Clifford and Chiaji declined to give advice on how much ashwagandha is safe to take. They both recommended speaking with your OB-GYN or another doctor before taking the herb and getting guidance from them.
While the benefits of ashwagandha sound great — less stress and more sleep? Sign this mama up for sure — there are risks associated with taking it while breastfeeding simply because there isn’t enough research showing that ashwagandha while breastfeeding is absolutely safe for both mother and baby. Be sure to speak to your doctor before you consider taking ashwagandha while breastfeeding.
Kairis Chiaji provides doula services in Sacramento as part of Blue Shield of California's new Maternal Child Health Equity initiative that addresses disproportionate mortality rates among mothers and children in underserved communities
Kendra Clifford, naturopathic doctor and practicing birth doula