Breastfeeding side effects: How our hormones play a role

Our body produces specific hormones postpartum to enable breastfeeding. Did you know these hormonal changes can have other impacts?

“No one ever told me that if I breastfeed, I might experience menopause-like symptoms!”

Did you know that breastfeeding temporarily changes your vagina? It can cause “lactational atrophic vaginitis.”

In this post we will be exploring the following questions:

  • What hormonal changes occur with breastfeeding?
  • Does breastfeeding lead to a  change in your vaginal tissue?
  • What foods can help my body produce more breast milk?
  • How can I minimize breastfeeding side effects through re-balancing my hormones?

Breastfeeding and hormonal changes

Our hormones change rapidly post-childbirth. But did you know that breastfeeding causes additional hormonal fluctuations, and can even catalyze additional hormonal imbalance symptoms?

Here’s how it works: During the postpartum period, estrogen levels decline after you deliver your placenta. Your placenta is the primary source and contributor to high estrogen levels during pregnancy. On top of that, breastfeeding mimics menopause due to the production of the milk-producing hormone, prolactin, temporarily blocking estrogen production, which keeps your estrogen levels low (1).

Decreased estrogen levels impact vaginal tissue, temporarily decreasing elasticity, blood flow, and thinning of the tissue. These vaginal changes cause symptoms like vaginal dryness, itching, burning, irritation, painful intercourse, urinary frequency, and urgency.

Tips to minimize vaginal irritation

There are ways to overcome bothersome symptoms like these. Here’s what you can do right now to avoid painful intercourse or vaginal irritation:

  • Tip #1: Use a lubricant during sexual intercourse. We recommend Pre-Seed as it’s non-toxic, safe with lots of research to back its claims.
  • Tip #2: Talk to your OB provider about starting a topical estrogen cream. It’s entirely safe to use while breastfeeding.
  • Tip #3: Stay hydrated! Drink 2 liters of water/day.
  • Tip #4: Use a vaginal moisturizer. There are a few that are safe to use and won’t disrupt your vaginal flora; we like Bee-Friendly Organic Vaginal Moisturizer and Lubricant.
  • Tip #5: Avoid douching or hygiene sprays. They only make you more dry and irritated.
  • Tip #6: Eat a diet high in phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are a natural compound found in plant-based foods and help balance estrogen and boost your milk supply!

Tip #6 brings us to our next topic: how can nutrition be leveraged to optimize breastmilk supply while also maintaining hormonal balance?

Foods to boost milk supply

Breastfeeding is energy-intensive for your body, and fueling yourself properly during this time is more important than ever both to maintain milk supply and encourage overall hormonal balance.

As discussed, prolactin is known as the “milk-producing hormone.” If you are having trouble with your milk supply, you’ll want to focus on foods high in this compound.

You’ll also want to add in phytoestrogens, as noted in tip #6 above, if you are finding that you are experiencing symptoms like vaginal dryness post-birth.

There are several main classes of phytoestrogens to be aware of. The first is lignans. These are components of plant cell walls and found in many fiber-rich foods such as berries, seeds (particularly flaxseeds), grains, nuts, and fruits. Two other major phytoestrogen classes are isoflavones and coumestans, the most widely researched groups. Isoflavones are present in berries, grains, and nuts, but are most abundant in soybeans and other legumes. Coumestans are found in legumes like split peas, lima beans, and pinto beans.

Here are a few breastfeeding diet meal suggestions:

  • One of the best known ways to increase milk supply is by eating garlic! Most infants tolerate garlic in the breast milk quite well, however, if you notice increased fussiness in your infant dial it back. You can whip up this garlic confit magic elixir when you want a taste of heaven with zero effect. Bonus: it only takes 20 minute to make!
  • Increase prolactin, a milk-producing hormone, by eating oats. They are rich in plant estrogens and beta-glucan. This breakfast smoothie takes only 5 minutes to make and is great for when you need a high-protein breakfast. PS, protein powder is safe to consume while breastfeeding, although you may want to avoid protein powders with fillers. Milk Drunk Protein Powder is an excellent option if you’re looking to boost your supply.
  • Pro tip: You can prep smoothies ahead of time by placing all ingredients, except liquid or any ones that won’t blend well when frozen, in a sandwich-size plastic baggie. All you need to do in the morning is add liquid and blend!
  • You can also stimulate lactation with foods rich in phytoestrogens. Try:
  • Fennel: You can eat fennel raw or cooked, add fennel seeds to a recipe, or drink it as a tea. I love this roasted fennel with parmesan recipe for any time myself or my family is in the mood for comfort food.
  • Pro tip: Fennel is a traditional remedy to reduce colic in infants.
  • Dark Leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard greens, and broccoli: This tangy collard greens and kale recipe is gluten-free, dairy-free, and takes just 15 minutes to prep.
  • Sesame seeds: If you’ve ever tried seed cycling, you’ll know that sesame seeds are a hormonal health superfood. These chewy sesame bars take just a moment to make and store well in the fridge and freezer. ake this when you want the perfect energy bar.
  • Berries: You can get a phytoestrogen boost with fruits like strawberries, cranberries, and raspberries. Try making this berry fruit salad when you’re craving fresh fruit and a quick snack.
  • Similar to sesame seeds, flaxseeds are known for their hormonal balancing properties and a starring player in seed cycling. Add ingthese milk-producing, immune-boosting powerhouses to your meals will also give ou a bonus bump in Omega-3/DHA. These flaxseed wraps are gluten-free, vegan, and perfect for when you are in a pinch and need a sandwich wrap ASAP.
  • Almonds are one of the oldest-known milk boosting foods, and a great addition to your general diet for being high in proteins and fatty acids. The Best Vegan Broccoli Salad ever is both healthy and decadent at the same time.
  • Pro tip: Put broccoli, onion, almonds in a food processor to avoid chopping.

Wrapping up

If you have recently given birth and are feeling a bit out of sorts, you’re not alone. Your body has been through a significant amount of change in a short period of time and is devoting a significant amount of its resources to milk production, and it will likely take some time to return to homeostasis. Additionally, breastfeeding can create hormonal imbalances that you previously had not experienced.

While the above are nutritional guidelines that work for many women postpartum, before making any dietary changes we recommend you consult a credible practitioner who can provide personalized guidance based on your situation, labwork, and other elements unique to you.

If you are looking for more information on this topic, we also recommend you check out Gravida. Gravida was founded by this post’s guest author, Morgan Michalowski, to help educate new moms on what to expect after childbirth. The site offers a 100 video postpartum series as well as live courses.

Morgan Michalowski


Morgan Michalowski is a certified nurse midwife, women’s health nurse practitioner, international board certified lactation consultant, doula, mother, and the founder of Gravida, a postpartum and return to work program. Morgan has more than a decade of experience working with new moms as a healthcare professional and coach. Morgan currently lives in Chicago with her husband, daughter, and dog.