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Breast Milk as Health Food: A New Trend

 Breast Milk as Health Food: A New Trend

Breast Milk has been under extreme focus for its health benefits for adults is generally watched with scepticism. Women Fitness brings you the fact and fiction about the same.

In an unusual twist, some men are turning to human milk in a quest to bulk up or improve their health, believing all the benefits it provides to infants can produce similar effects in adults. The trend is puzzling experts who say breast milk is meant for human babies, not human grown-ups. They worry about the safety of drinking milk from donors who are not properly screened.

Still, some men think the nutrient-rich liquid is the secret to their success at the gym. “It gives me incredible energy I don’t get from other food and drinks,” Anthony, who didn’t disclose his last name, recently told New York Magazine. “I don’t believe in steroids or other energy supplements, none of that garbage… I want natural stuff that’s God-given.”

Many bodybuilders also tout the benefits of breast milk, with some of them calling it “the greatest supplement ever” on the message boards of It’s not exactly a product you can pick up at the store, so when men are seeking breast milk, some are turning to sites such as, which connect lactating women who want to sell or donate their milk with buyers — usually other moms, but not always. has had a “Men Buying Breast Milk” category since its inception more than four years ago, said founder Glenn Snow, adding it's not surprising there’s demand for breast milk among men. “We think breast milk is amazing and can be used for many health and wellness purposes regardless of the age or gender of the person seeking its benefits,” Snow told

The men’s classified ads feature pleas for breast milk from all corners of the U.S., including “a retired firefighter looking to fix my health” in Lewiston, Idaho, and an “older man seeking fresh breast milk for health reasons” in Fort Worth, Texas. (Some of the ads appear to ask for more than just nourishment, such as the “Niagara Region gentleman” looking for both breast milk and an “ongoing personal relationship.”). Still, only a small fraction of the site’s members seek milk for their own health and wellness, Snow said, with most focused on helping mothers share milk with babies in need.

Breast milk is rich in nutrients and antibodies, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It contains just the right amount of fat, sugar, water, and protein to help a baby grow and it’s easier to digest. Because of all those benefits, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding for the first six months of a baby's life.

But there is no evidence that breast milk has a protective role in the health of adults, said Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York.

“Human breast milk (is) designed to nourish babies — not grown men,” said Zied, author of “Younger Next Week.” “Bottom line: I find the idea of an adult using human breast milk for health benefits unsubstantiated by science.” Breast milk contains immunoglobulins that help fight infection—but they are immunoglobulins that, for the most part, adults have and infants don’t, said Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician and medical communications editor at Boston Children’s Hospital.

She noted that human milk was meant for humans while cow’s milk was meant for cows, so by that reasoning, human milk would be healthier for people to drink than cow’s milk.

But at the same time, it’s also meant for human babies, not adults, McCarthy added. Both Zied and McCarthy were concerned about the risk of disease when drinking breast milk from an unknown source.

“Milk is a bodily fluid and can carry infections that are present in the body, such as HIV, hepatitis and others,” McCarthy said. Human milk that’s obtained directly from individuals or through the Internet is not likely to come from a donor who was adequately screened for disease or contamination risk, the FDA warns. The agency recommends that parents who are seeking donor milk for their babies contact the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which dispenses milk by prescription or by hospital purchase order only. The association has safety guidelines for screening donors, and collecting, processing, handling, testing and storing milk.

Meanwhile, a study last fall found human milk bought and sold on the Internet may be contaminated. So Zied advised adults to stick with proven nutrition guidelines.There's little doubt that breast milk helps keep babies healthy, but could it be a miracle cure for adult illnesses, too? That's the suggestion from a number of studies on its use as a treatment for conditions as varied as cancer, diarrhoea and diabetes. In the latest research published last week, a Swedish team reported that the sizes of bladder tumours were reduced just five days after patients were injected with a breast milk compound. The team at Gothenburg University had been looking at the antibiotic properties of breast milk when a researcher noticed that cancerous lung cells in a test tube died on contact with breast milk.

They then isolated the key compound - a protein called alpha-lactalbumin. Subsequent tests showed the compound becomes lethal only when exposed to acid, as it is in the stomach, so the scientists mixed it with oleic acid, which is found in babies' stomachs, to form a compound they call HAMLET (human alphalactalbumin made lethal to tumour cells). The Swedish team, led by Professor Catharina Svanborg, have shown that HAMLET attacks cancer cells, causing apoptosis - a form of cell suicide - in 40 kinds of tumour.

Studies with rats showed that after just seven weeks a highly invasive brain cancer called glioblastoma was seven times smaller in those treated with HAMLET. The product has also been made into a cream and tested on warts (which share the same growth properties as tumours) and found to reduce their size by 75 per cent in 20 volunteers.

Researchers believe this could have implications for the treatment of cervical cancer, which is linked to the human papilloma virus, or HPV. Its extraordinary ability to attack rogue cells could be why breast milk appears to protect babies from all sorts of illness - a protection that scientists believe could linger in the body for years. Research shows that breast-fed babies have a reduced risk of many adult illnesses, including cancer. But cancer is not the only focus of breast milk research:

Diabetes and Parkinson's

Breast milk could be a new, and easier, source of stem cells. Stem cells are one of the most exciting discoveries in medicine, thanks to their remarkable ability to develop into many different cell types in the body, serving as a sort of internal repair system. Stem cells are already being used to treat leukaemia and could soon help treat eye conditions. Scientists are also researching their potential in the longer term for treating conditions such as spinal injuries, diabetes and Parkinson's disease. A molecular biologist at Perth University, Australia, has discovered stem cells in breast milk.

Dr Mark Cregan and his team cultured the cells of human breast milk and found the result was positive for a stem cell marker called nestin. 'These cells have all the physical characteristics of stem cells,' he says. 'What we will do next is to see if they behave like stem cells.' If so, this promises to provide researchers with an ethical and easier means of harvesting stem cells for researching treatments. Indeed, Dr Cregan believes this development could be possible within five years.


Chronic diarrhoea kills up to 2.2 million people worldwide every year, mostly children in developing countries. Scientists are looking at whether breast milk could help treat it. One approach is based on indigestible sugars known as oligosaccharides, many of which occur only in human milk. These sugars protect a baby from pathogens to which the mother has never been exposed.

It's thought oligosaccharides might be used to boost elderly people's weakened natural protection against pathogens. They could also be used after a course of strong antibiotics by helping re-colonise the digestive tract with beneficial bacteria.

So far, scientists have been able to genetically engineer mice to produce oligosaccharides in their milk and are working on bioengineering bacteria to produce human oligosaccharides to put into baby formula milk (to protect bottle-fed babies) or as supplements for adults.

Other compounds found in breast milk, called lysozyme and lactoferrin, have been tested on children with diarrhoea and have been shown to not only be an effective treatment, but to offer some sort of protection against future bouts.


Breast milk contains lactoferrin, which helps prevent babies' immune systems from overreacting. This is being looked as a potential treatment for auto-immune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and septic shock.


In Italy, studies are under way to see if a breast milk molecule called glyerophosphocholine (GPC) can improve mental function in people with dementia or victims of stroke and traumatic brain injury. In many separate trials, GPC appears to improve memory, attention and orientation in people with various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's. It works like a brain nutrient, feeding the most energetically needy cells of our body, such as the brain cells.


A science student at the University of California recently discovered that the lauric acid in breast milk reduces irritation and spots, and has developed an acne cream that is undergoing clinical trials. The cream uses tiny gold particles to carry lauric acid into pores where its anti-microbial properties fight bacteria. As breast milk is difficult to source, researchers are working to develop new sources for its health giving compounds.

The compounds lysozyme and lactoferrin are harvested for research from a specific variety of rice, and the milk from genetically engineered goats and cows. Though some of these beneficial compounds are found in milk from other animals, others occur only in human milk, and the nonhuman versions are less potent when given to humans.


Breast milk has a long history in healthcare. The ancient Egyptians used it as a medicine, blending it with honey. And in the Sixties, Albert Sabin, inventor of the oral polio vaccine, conducted a study that showed mice recovered from polio when fed human breast milk.

Today, some patients suffering from immunological diseases - such as HIV, leukaemia or hepatitis - or those receiving therapy that reduces the immune system, such as chemotherapy, have drunk breast milk in the hope that it can help adults, just as it helps sick babies. It has also been taken by cancer patients who claim it slows the progression of the disease.

In the U.S., some milk banks provide it to adults. However, the benefits of drinking breast milk are unproven, and scientists maintain any beneficial effect may have more to do with placebo.

While British milk banks do sometimes receive requests to supply milk for adults, they are not able to provide it, says Gillian Weaver of the UK Association of Milk Banking. 'This is partly because of a lack of clinical evidence of benefit, but also because milk banks are not funded or organised on a scale in which they could provide it,' she says. There is also understandable concern about diverting breast milk from needy babies.







Dated 18 March 2015

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