Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Dreaded M -- Mastitis and ways to naturally treat it

I promised to talk about herbal remedies for mastitis—The Dreaded M – so here we go:

Mastitis-- caused by either a form of Staphylococcus infection or even a Candida infection-- can come out of nowhere, usually accompanied by flu-like symptoms (achy, head-throbbing, bone tired, fever, etc. I have heard some mother’s even speak of vomiting).

Its partner in crime is the plugged duct. A plugged duct usually has symptoms of a red and (very) sore area on the breast, often it feels as if someone has punched you very hard in chest. If you explore the area (you should, and will have to if you are going to get rid of it), you may feel a hard little ball that is tender to the touch. Usually, if you have progressed to mastitis it began with a plugged duct that is now infected. You need to address any of these symptoms straight away, as mastitis can progress rapidly.

When I first had it, my fever climbed to 104 in a matter of hours. I had ignored the soreness in my breast assuming it was merely my breasts acclimating to nursing. But that kind of soreness is more akin to a tingling sensation running down through the breast, usually when your milk comes in, sometimes described as little crystals flowing down. A plugged duct is stationary, often hard and noticeably sore to the touch.

There are various natural treatments, and I’m hoping some of our lovely readers will offer suggestions of what they have done as well, but until then I’ll fill you in on what I have personally found to be tried and true.

Here is a list of approaches:

The Ginger Compress
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is warming and stimulating; one of nature's premier anti-inflammatory herbs, the heated ginger infusion will help to open up the duct as well as get things moving and releasing down and through the duct. The skin on our breasts is very delicate and will rapidly absorb the healing benefits of Ginger’s properties.

- fresh ginger root
- a pot filled with at least a quart of water, set to a low simmer with a cover
- a grater for the ginger, or at least a good knife
- a cloth (flannel or even t-shirt material works great)

Grate up the fresh ginger until you have a good 4 tb, add this to your water starting to simmer. Cover this and keep an eye on it, you don’t want it to boil (I sometimes leave the cover slightly askew so as to let only a little steam escape). Let this simmer for maybe 10 minutes, then turn it off and let it sit for a bit. You will want this to cool enough only so that it is bearable to apply to your breast. It needs to be hot, but let’s not burn the boobies, please. Whole other issue!

Strain the ginger bits out, although I have been known to not even bother (why? Because it was simply too much effort while feeling sick and trying to tend to the baby and house, the phone ringing, and oh, yeah-- the dog needs to be fed as well!, etc).

When ready, dip your cloth and saturate well with the ginger infusion. Apply this to the sore area on your breast, and leave there until it cools. You can also place the compress under your bra, so that you can still chase around the wee one while tending to the bigger issue. This needs to be done on a fairly regular basis, at the very least a few times a day. This works best if accompanied with other approaches as follows:

Breast Massage
In between compresses, which I would do off and on throughout the day whenever possible, is breast massage. This hurts if you are doing it right. You need to get in there and find the lump causing your soreness, and really press good and hard to try and release it (my first bout with mastitis, my CNM actually pushed and popped my plugged duct with a distinct sensation as it released), massaging the area and then squeezing down, pushing all the way down and out the nipple... Imagine a cross between pumping breast milk manually and squeezing toothpaste down and out the tube (yeah; great visual, no? Motherhood ain't pretty, folks!). You want to make sure that you see milk coming out as you do this. You are literally helping to clear the duct, as it were. This is much easier to pull off in a hot shower, by the way.

It helps for some women, especially well-endowed ones, to massage the breast while their child is nursing, even when you are not addressing this acute issue. For a month after my mastitis, I would take my breast in a vice-like grip (again with the wonderful visual!) and squeeze as I massaged my "hand vice" down the breast in rhythm as my babe fed. This helps to stimulate the process of milk releasing readily from the ducts and moving down and through efficiently. When I had my second babe recently, I started out the first month doing the same so as to er, prime the pump.

Now the hard part: You need to rest, mama. The one thing They are clear on is that mastitis is usually a symptom of exhaustion. (Who are They, anyway? I don’t know either, but They seem to know everything about us. Some They’s I trust, some I don’t. And it’s in direct proportion to what I already know, thank you). This is a situation that calls for you to put your feet up and at the very least sit around. Let the children crawl all over you, let the dishes pile up in the sink, forget the dog hair dust bunnies floating in every corner. REST. When people squawk at you for their needs, tell them Ms. Thistle said so.

The main cause of mastitis and plugged ducts is an over-worked body. Any new mama knows that this simply comes with the territory, and you have my greatest sympathy. But if you are not well, you cannot mother well. You know how after birth you are told by your practitioner that if you continue bleeding it is a sign you need to rest? Same with mastitis or plugged ducts. Our bodies are already being very taxed dealing with a newborn. Sleep is one of the most simple and proficient forms of healing in the body. If you are not getting enough sleep at night, see if there is family or your husband who can relieve you for a few hours – even one hour a day! – so that you can lay down. If you can’t sleep, at the very least laying down will help to calm the body. There are herbs as well to assist you in being calm, listed next:


  • Tincture of Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) in glycerite. You may use an alcohol tincture, but since you are breastfeeding you really need to sweat off the alcohol first (to do this, you place a dropperful in a shot glass and add steaming hot water. Let this sit until cooled. The alcohol will evaporate, leaving the medicinal benefits intact. Drink deep. You can add this to juice if you find the taste unsavory). While you are resting, take a big dropperful of Lemon Balm. Lemon Balm is a wonderful nervine, so not only will it assist in calming down your Central Nervous System; it also helps to keep fevers down while being anti-bacterial. When I first had The Dreaded M, I went straight from a sore red spot to a high fever that kept climbing by the hour, pushin 104E. Knowing its wonderful affinity for lowering fever, I started to take one dropperful of Lemon Balm every 20-30 minutes, and within 1-2 hours my fever was in check. Not gone, but manageable. The fever is a sign that your body is working to fight infection – it’s a good sign, but a concern when your temp begins to rise rapidly. The anti-bacterial benefits also help to fight off the infection that is trying to take root in that duct. Lemon Balm has other benefits, soon I will put up more info on its properties and give a link.
  • Tincture of Echinacea (E. purpurea, preferably in this case or E. angustifolia) or Usnea (U. wirthii, U.californica, etc). It is worth it to also take doses of Echinacea tincture, to help support the immune system in fighting any infection in your duct. I have had great success as well with Usnea (a personal favorite that grows in abundance where I live), a powerful anti-bacterial herb (that is also anti-fungal/viral, by the by) and considered to be “nature’s antibiotic.” In fact, I use these two herbs in combination so often while nursing that I make a tincture of 50-50% with them. They marry well, and are safe while nursing and pregnant. The one caveat would be that a person with auto-immune disorders in general will not benefit from Echinacea, and may even feel worse with its use. If this is you, you can use the Usnea alone and/or the Mushroom complex. A dropperful, 4x a day during the acute phase of your ailment should do the trick.
  • Mushroom complex blend. I have used one made by Pure, although I believe that Eclectic also carries a line. You are looking for a mix of Reishi (ganoderma lucidum), Shiitake (lentinus edodes) and Maitake (grifola frondosa) . This blend is fantastic, hands-down. I loves me some Echinacea, but I have to say that this complex has kicked a cold or infection out of my body in record time. I cannot believe how efficient it is. Theses adaptogenic mushrooms have potent immune stimulating properties: Reishi for instance has potent anti-inflammatory properties and has been known to aide in supporting the liver, fighting cancer and creating luminous skin, to name only a few (another herb that I will post about with links to more info in the future). This mushroom complex stimulates macrophages, which in turn eat up the infecting-causing bacteria. For this, taking 4 caps in the AM and PM should work.

Additional Methods & Info

  • Nursing positions: Another thing that helps is to position the baby’s mouth so that the chin is aligned with the plugged duct. The suction, from what I’m told at Le Leche League, is strongest at the chin, and therefore best helps to draw out milk through the troubled duct. This meant for me, since my plugged duct was up high on the top of by breast (lucky girl!), I was straddling my sweet wee one as she lay on the floor essentially upside down in position to me, dangling my sore boob over her face on my hands and knees whilst she fed. It was the only way to have her chin facing my plugged duct, you see? This is why women seem to not usually get a plugged duct on the underside or bottom of their breast, because the babe’s chin is usually thereabouts. Now do you see better? During all of this, it is vital that you keep nursing. It is important to keep milk flowing and moving through the ducts, and there is no harm for the child. It can be rare that you are recommended not to nurse, and this is when it has advanced to serious stages of infection (at this point, you have hopefully gone to your practitioner, as the infection and pain would be great, more below).
  • Lecithin supplements: I have not tried this myself, but have been told by a Le Leche volunteer that for women who seem to have chronic bouts with mastitis or plugged ducts, taking lecithin (available in both soy and egg derivatives) on a regular basis helps to keep the issue at bay. This makes sense to me, since Lecithin helps to bind fats (such as cholesterol) to water in the body, more readily assisting their travel and exit out of the body. Breast milk is heavy in fat, and actually starts out in something similar to powder form in our bodies that synergizes into breast milk and flows through the duct. Lecithin helps to ‘grease’ the ducts, as it were. The more I read about Lecithin, the more I think it is worthwhile to take regularly. It also aides memory, which countless new mama’s can attest to suddenly losing: “Mommy Brain” is frustrating and common.
  • Candida? It is worth considering, if you believe this to be a yeast-based infection (usually a burning sensation down and through the nipple with extreme pain and cracking on the nipple while nursing; possibly you already are aware that you are prone to yeast infections such as vaginal?) it is worth looking into your diet further, as well as keeping away from any unnecessary sugar.
  • Antibiotics Sometimes these conditions will advance to the point of an abscess forming with pus in the breast. If you have any of the symptoms I’ve listed, and you do not see a quick response from the methods listed here, get thyself to a doctor, as my herbal teacher liked to say. While I am in no way an advocate of the use of antibiotics, sometimes they will become necessary. If you do elect to use them, make sure to take a good and potent probiotic 2-3 hours after each dose of the antibiotic, as this helps to re-establish good bacteria that is killed off in the intestines by the medicine.
  • Water -- drink large amounts (the average recommended amount is 64 oz per day). You should be doing this anyway, but it bears mentioning just in case.
  • Finally, WARNING: With the recent surge of staph infections and resistance, we must be very careful how we address staph. I have seen it beat with these natural methods but sometimes the use of antibiotics becomes necessary; only you can decide how you want to treat your maladies so please EDUCATE YOURSELF as you attempt to treat yourself, never assume. If the situation continues to advance, please seek the advice of your health practitioner. Any of the information I supply here is never meant to replace the advice of your health practitioner, nor am I a Doctor. All FDA disclaimers in regard to alternative medicines apply. I will soon be listing many wonderful books, links and references to help you in your education.

Whew! That’s all for now. Since this blog is all new, I will be adding info as we go. I plan on also having a Materia Medica on our website (, where I will go into more of the diverse healing properties of specific herbs, including all of those listed here. Please feel free to comment with suggestions/ideas/questions, or email any suggestions or questions directly as well:

Green Blessings of breast health!


No comments: