Would you believe that the ugly sow thistle, that insufferable weed that overruns gardens and fields, is used as food around the Mediterranean, and is also used by nursing mothers to support their milk supply?
Sow Thistle – a New Super Food for Moms
While writing my book A Mother’s Garden of Galactagogues, I dove into the research on this totally neglected herb. To my surprise, I found that it possesses great nutritional value and is being studied for its medicinal effects.[i]
Experts in food production write: Sonchus species (Sow Thistle) are productive when cultivated on any type of land, home garden, or even roof gardens using plastic or earthen pots with minimum inputs and labor. Considering the global environmental changes, initiatives to develop new high-yielding and more stress-tolerant varieties, to extend its cultivation and uses, and to strengthen the commercial production of this novel vegetable crop, are now needed. [ii]
In other words—just as I describe in my book A Mother’s Garden of Galactagogues, sow thistle can be grown with little effort in containers on porches, terraces, roof gardens, balconies… they are a perfect super food for an uncertain world, growing everywhere, accessible to all, and they are perfect as a home-grown galactagogue.
To their nutritive value, the leaves are high in protein and fiber, and extremely high in vitamin C. The leaves contain high levels of potassium, copper, calcium, manganese, zinc, and phosphorus. They are a good source of the essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6. These fatty acids, especially when untreated or processed, are essential to our health and a well-functioning immune system.
Sow thistle possesses powerful medicinal properties—liver protective, anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. They are thought to help prevent kidney and heart disease.
Main use for milk supply: leaves and stems, prepared as a concentrated broth, or as food.
Requirements: Sow thistle grows in most soils. It grows best with some shade and regular watering.
Caution: only use plants from a garden that has not been treated with pesticides or herbicides.
Good to know: There are two sorts of sow thistles: the annual sow thistle has a long taproot (a single root that extends straight down, like a dandelion’s root); this kind is welcome in your garden. The perennial sow thistle grows from a rhizome that spreads horizontally beneath the soil’s surface, shooting up new thistles as it spreads. If you find this kind in your garden, dig it out, as it will otherwise be impossible to control.
Harvest: Varieties of sow thistle have differently shaped leaves. They may be soft with rounded edges (see the photos above), or tough and spiky-rimmed. The spiky leaves are tender when the plant is young, as in this photo, but as they age you’ll need to cut away the rim with scissors and soften the leaf with a rolling pin.
Food: Sow thistle leaves are delicious in early spring. They taste like sweet chard. They can be eaten in salad, boiled like spinach or sautéed in olive oil.
My neighbor, Graziano, who first taught me to garden, explained that sow thistle is grown in Sardinia as a vegetable. The tops are trimmed off to prevent flowering and the leaves are picked continuously to use in food.
The unopened buds are also edible; they taste like hazelnuts.
P.S. The photos here are of the initial “rosette” that forms before the plant shoots up tall. They were taken in February.
Forgotten Galactagogue – Simmer that Thistle
Lactogenic diet: The ancient Greek doctor Dioscorides, 2000 years ago, lists sow thistle as a galactagogue. The British herbalist Nicolas Culpeper described its use in his herbal from 1653: The decoction of the leaves and stalks causes abundance of milk in nurses. Today, the use of sow thistle as a galactagogue is still remembered by the older generation in Italy.[iii]
My suggestion: To make a “decoction” (a strong broth) simmer the leaves and stalks in water in a half-covered pot for 20 minutes. Sip a few teaspoons of the bitter liquid. Don’t overdo it. Repeat the dose some hours later. If you tolerate it well, try repeating the dose every few hours for a few days. If after four days you notice no change, this plant is not going to have the desired effect.
Does this information intrigue you? If yes, you will enjoy my book A Mother’s Garden of Galactagogues, available now on amazon. It is full of planting info but also full of rare dietary suggestions and information for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.
[iii] Geraci, Anna & Polizzano, Vincenza & Schicchi, Rosario. (2018). Ethnobotanical uses of wild taxa as galactagogues in Sicily (Italy). Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae. 87. 10.5586/asbp.3580.
Amaranth as Food
In traditional societies, the roots, stalks, leaves and seeds of amaranth are valued as medicine and food.
In the West, we are only familiar with its tiny seeds that are cooked like rice, or ground into flour for baking.
The seeds are an extremely valuable source of protein and have a cholesterol-lowering effect. The leaves are a good source of vitamins C and A, calcium, iron, and folate. The leaves are surprisingly high in protein. Their iron content is high, and increases as the plant matures and goes to flower.
Typically, the young, tender leaves are used in salad or cooked meals. The tenderer stems and stalks can be cooked as a vegetable, too. The iron-rich older leaves, too, can be cooked and are quite enjoyable.
Leaves, stems and stalks can be boiled, steamed and stir-fried, and used in stews or soup.
Cultural food as a galactagogue
The Warlis, an indigenous tribe of India whose culture extends back to 2500 B.C.E., chew the fresh roots of amaranth to increase milk production.[i]
Another tribe, the Kerala, prepare a watery concoction (soup or broth) of the whole plant to help mothers prepare for and heal from childbirth.[ii]
In many traditional Indian societies, the tender young shoots and leaves are eaten as a vegetable to increase milk supply.[iii]
An older woman from Peru recounted for me that mothers would drink the extra “cooking water” from amaranth or quinoa to support lactation – they drank the broth.
This blogpost describes a traditional, cultural food that is used to support milk supply, and that can easily be grown both outside in a container or inside as microgreens on a counter or windowsill. See A Mother’s Garden of Galactagogues to learn more about cultural foods used to support milk supply that you can grow at home.
[i] Sayed, N. Z., Doe, R., & Mukundan, U. (2007). Herbal remedies used by Warlis of Dahanu to induce lactation in nursing mothers. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, 6(4), 602-605.
[ii] Rajith, & Kunju, Navas & Thaha, & Manju, & Anish, & Rajasekharan, & George, Varughese. (2010). A study on traditional mother care plants of rural communities of South Kerala. Indian journal of traditional knowledge. 9. 203-208.
[iii] Karnam Chandrashekhar, A Review on Tanduliyaka (Amaranthus spinosus L) – A Weed, A Vegetable and A Medicinal Plant International Journal of Ayurvedic Medicine Vol 9 No 4 (2018): October – December 2018
.Nursing mothers often ask if the food they eat might be triggering their baby’s fussiness, digestive discomfort, and allergies. The answer is a cautious yes – quite possibly.
We know that during pregnancy, large molecules from food can pass from a mother’s intestine into her bloodstream and reach the baby in the womb.
These molecules do not belong in the womb. Naturally, they trigger a defensive immune reaction in the baby, pre-conditioning the baby to launch another immune reaction when they encounter these same food molecules in their mother’s milk.
Leaky Gut and Prenatal Exposure
Please note: whole food molecules are not supposed to be present in the bloodstream or in the womb. They are supposed to be broken into their smallest components while in the intestine – into amino acids, fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins – before being allowed into the body.
When food molecules leak into the bloodstream, it is a sign that the intestinal lining is damaged, is perforated with tiny holes that allow these larger molecules to pass through.
A permeable intestine also called a “leaky gut,” is sadly not rare. Many of us have a permeable intestine to some extent because of the foods we eat, the medications we take and the toxins we are exposed to. This means that many of our babies are exposed to food molecules while in the womb.
Researchers believe that prenatal exposure to food molecules may be a major cause of infant colic and allergy. They believe that this exposure pre-conditions unborn babies to respond with inflammation when they encounter these same food molecules later on in their mother’s milk. This is particularly the case if there is a history of allergy or autoimmune disease in the family.
A study from 2016 affirms this association. Researchers looked at the amniotic fluid from several mothers mid-pregnancy and were able to identify ten major food allergens in the fluid, including from cow’s milk, fruit, egg, fish, nuts, and wheat.1 This means that these babies were being preconditioned to respond with inflammation to these foods–and indeed, that colicky babies are in a state of mild “systemic inflammation.”7
Inflammation, Flora, Colic
Inflammation can show up in different ways in a baby. It can show up as insomnia, wheezing, rashes, eczema, fussiness, restlessness and unhappiness, and also infant colic: the severe digestive pain that repeats nearly every day in about 20% of babies, starting at 2-3 weeks after childbirth and resolving at between 3-4 months of age.
Decades ago, infant colic was a medical mystery. Even today, many pediatricians, MDs, and pediatric nurses are not up-to-date on the research and do not know the causes or best treatments for infant colic. Because it is fairly common (20-40% of all babies worldwide) infant colic has been normalized. Instead of receiving useful information, parents are often patted on the back and assured that colic is normal and will pass.
Another area of research has looked into the intestinal flora of colicky and non-colicky infants. It turns out that the intestinal flora of colicky babies is colonized by fewer strains of helpful bacteria and yeasts compared to the flora of non-colicky infants. The “depleted” flora of colicky babies makes their intestine more permeable and more prone to inflammation.
Research shows that the quality of the intestinal flora is better in babies who have been born vaginally and who are breastfed and that these babies have less infant colic. However, not all vaginally born and breastfed babies are free of infant colic–far from it.
In any case, a 2020 study examined the very first stool of meconium after childbirth of babies who went on to develop infant colic and those who did not, and found that the difference already exists at this time.2
Mom’s own Health Impacts her Baby
Other research has noted connections between the mother’s diet during pregnancy as well as her long-term health history and her baby’s tendency to develop allergies and develop other health problems.3 4
Researchers are actively looking into ways to improve the mother’s diet and intestinal health, so as to bring improvement to both the mother and her prospective children.5
This is doubly important because research now also documents that infant colic–once considered normal and harmless–is predictive of digestive problems, allergy, and even learning and neurological problems later in life.6
I personally take infant colic very seriously, having gone through it with my first-born and wishing I had known then what I know now. In my book Mother Food I describe many of these entangled factors and suggest ways to unwind them and improve everyone’s health and wellbeing. I believe it is possible to prevent infant colic or to improve the symptoms of infant colic, in almost all cases, and that this should be a top priority for new parents and their healthcare providers.
For more information about treating candidiasis naturally (fungal infection is a common component of a permeable intestine and the proclivity for allergies and autoimmune disease) see the article here.
This blogpost began by answering the question: does the food that a mother eats somehow get into her milk and trigger her baby’s colic? The short answer is yes. The long answer has to do with the mother’s permeable intestinal lining, with a baby’s depleted flora, and with other factors that influence the baby’s proclivity to develop allergies. Indeed, many areas of research today are describing links between a mother’s health and her baby’s tendencies toward health or disease.
If you find this article interesting and you would like to do more to reduce inflammation and improve your own and your family’s long-term health, consider purchasing my book Mother Food:
The good news is that parents can improve their own and their baby’s intestinal flora and resilience to inflammation and that the long-term benefits for the entire family are significant.
- Pastor‐Vargas, C, Maroto, AS, Díaz‐Perales, A, Villalba, M, Esteban, V, Ruiz‐Ramos, M, de Alba, MR, Vivanco, F, Cuesta‐Herranz, J. Detection of major food allergens in amniotic fluid: initial allergenic encounter during pregnancy. Pediatr Allergy Immunol 2016: 27: 716– 720.
- Korpela, K., Renko, M., Paalanne, N. et al. Microbiome of the first stool after birth and infantile colic. Pediatr Res 88, 776–783 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-020-0804-y
- Kim et al., Maternal Perinatal Dietary Patterns Affect Food Allergy Development in Susceptible Infants. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice 7:2337-2347.e7 (2019) 10.1016/j.jaip.2019.03.026
- Rhoads et al., Infant Colic Represents Gut Inflammation and Dysbiosis, The Journal of Pediatrics, 2018: 203: 55-61.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.07.042.
- 1.Hurd L. Optimizing the Microbiome and Immune System With Maternal Diet in Pregnancy and Lactation May Prevent Food Allergies in Infants. ICAN: Infant, Child, & Adolescent Nutrition. 2015;7(4):212-216. doi:10.1177/1941406415595861
- Savino, F., Castagno, E., Bretto, R., Brondello, C., Palumeri, E. and Oggero, R. (2005), A prospective 10‐year study on children who had severe infantile colic. Acta Pædiatrica, 94: 129-132. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2005.tb02169.x
- Pärtty, Anna∗; Kalliomäki, Marko∗; Salminen, Seppo†; Isolauri, Erika∗ Infantile Colic Is Associated With Low-grade Systemic Inflammation, Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition: May 2017 – Volume 64 – Issue 5 – p 691-695 doi: 10.1097/MPG.0000000000001340
Your furry leaves and blue starflowers
Summon bees at all the hours,
Throughout spring and throughout summer,
Summon all the honey mummers.
How their nimble legs alight
Upon your blossoms’ azure shade,
They stop and nip your sticky dew,
Then fly away.
Those bumbles, yellows, tiny blues,
Drunk – imbibing your sweet nectar –
Take no note of this defector
Spellbound by the view.
All I long for, all day long
As here I sit and hear their song,
(the buzz and zip as they dash past,
performing their important task )
Is just to sit and sit just here
‘Til your blue starflower light appear.
Sweet borage light—so brief, and clear!
When furry leaves wilt and winter is near,
Restore my will to grow,
Renew my strength to grieve,
For all new life will pass,
All starflowers go to seed.
Hilary Jacobson, 2020
Apricots — one of our strongest lactogenic fruit, and especially rich in calcium.
Calcium and magnesium work together to maintain healthy nerves, strong muscles, and a rhythmic heartbeat. In the brain, they promote neural activity and act as a natural antidepressant. A lack of calcium and magnesium can lead to insomnia, irritability, exhaustion, mental confusion, heart rhythm problems, and depression, among other difficulties, in adults. In children, a lack of these minerals has been implicated in allergic and behavioral disorders.
Calcium and magnesium may also be crucial to maintaining a good supply of milk. It is recommended that we supplement these minerals together, in a ratio of two or three times as much calcium as magnesium, or 2-3:1. Some experts, however, suggest we supplement on a ratio of 1:1, as many people are sorely deficient in magnesium.
1000 mg of calcium is the daily requirement—1200 mg for breastfeeding women—in the US. Many adult women are deficient in calcium in spite of a diet rich in calcium-fortified foods. What is wrong with this picture? Traditional peoples around the world get far less calcium than we do: 400 – 600 mg of calcium per day is the norm. Even so, there are seldom signs of calcium deficiency in cultures that have maintained their whole-foods diet.
Check out Weston A. Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration for photographic documentation of the teeth of indigenous peoples, before and after they began eating a diet of refined foods. In the before pictures, we see wide jaws and beautiful strong teeth, free of cavities. The after pictures feature the narrow jaws and crooked teeth so common to industrialized societies.
The reason Americans lack calcium is not that we eat too little calcium-rich foods, but because our diet causes calcium to be leeched from our bones and teeth. We can make better use of our calcium intake by improving our dietary habits.
Foods that Deplete Calcium:
Fibrous bulk is sometimes taken to reduce appetite and to promote regular bowel movements. Minerals bind to this fiber in the intestine, so that they pass through the intestine rather than into the bloodstream.
Protein. We often eat meals that are too heavy on protein (meat, eggs, milk). Excess protein is acid-forming. In order to protect tissues in the body from acidity, the body uses calcium to neutralize the acid. This is another reason that a high-protein diet can lead to a depletion of calcium.
Diuretics. Foods and medication that stimulate the kidney will cause minerals, including calcium, to be excreted into the urine. Herbal diuretics, such as nettle and dandelion, restore the minerals that they cause to be lost. Excessive protein will also cause the kidneys to go into overdrive and will lead to a loss of calcium.
Caffeine causes calcium to be excreted with urine. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and most carbonated beverages.
Excessive salt also causes calcium to be excreted with urine.
Phosphorus has to be in the right balance for calcium metabolism to work. Too little phosphorus prevents the body from using calcium. Too much and the excess phosphorus binds to calcium, pulling it right out of the bones.
Foods that are high in phosphorus are: dairy, meat, white flour, and carbonated soft drinks. These foods cause calcium to be pulled out of the bones—which is why people who eat meat regularly need to supplement with higher dosages of calcium.
Sugar decreases phosphorus in the blood. After eating sugar, phosphorus is so low that the body is unable to utilize calcium.
Keep Calcium in Your Bones
Reduce caffeine, white sugar, and table salt. Most people overdose on the sugar and salt found in processed foods, snacks, candy, and junk foods. Eat a whole-foods diet, and chose natural sugar sources that are rich in minerals—blackstrap molasses, malt syrup, maple syrup or honey. Use a quality, contaminant-free ancient sea salt, such as the affordable and easily available product RealSalt, derived from the ancient sea beds of Utah.
Limit animal protein—roughly three small to moderate servings a day, balanced with vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruit.
Sunlight. At least twenty minutes of sunlight each and every day on exposed skin, such as bare arms and legs, will provide the vitamin D necessary to utilize calcium, if you are a young, healthy person. (Sun through a window is not adequate.)
For most of us, sufficient daily exposure to sunlight is not possible and it is necessary to supplement with vitamin D.
Building sufficient amounts of vitamin D is essential to having a fully functioning, robust immune system.
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