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Nutrition

Out There: Breast Milk…as a Recovery Drink?

Susan Lacke addresses the question of whether or not human breast milk is beneficial to athletes after a workout.

Hey, do any of your super-athlete types consume breast milk as a performance enhancer? I’ve got gallons in the freezer and Nate’s about to be weaned.

I squinted at the text message on my phone, unsure of whether I should be intrigued, amused, or horrified by the offer from my friend Beth. I turned my phone screen to my friend John, a sports medicine doctor.

“Have you ever heard of this?”

His answer came in the form of an eye roll.

“Oh, man,” he sighed, “I wish this rumor would just die already.”

He went on to give a scientific explanation of proteins and immunoglobins and muscle regeneration and some other stuff, but I wasn’t really listening because I was trying to figure out how I live in a world where human breast milk as an ergogenic aid is actually a thing.

And it really is a thing. There are websites where mothers sell bags of their breast milk (“liquid gold!” they tout) to athletes—mostly male powerlifters, though the demographic is shifting to include runners and triathletes too. What sounds like a fetish from alleyways and Craigslist is a growing online industry.

According to an article in New York Magazine, proponents say breast is best for more than just the Mommy & Me crowd. Chock-full of nutrients and protein, it’s supposedly a great recovery elixir and immunity booster for athletes. Still, as I read the article, I couldn’t help but think the process strange. It is, after all, the bodily secretion of another human being. A stranger from the Internet, no less. Call me a germaphobe, but I don’t even swap spit with my husband unless we both gargle with Listerine first.

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Once I unclutched my pearls, I e-mailed my friend Kim, a sports nutritionist and pro triathlete, to get the straight talk. With so many people jumping on the Boob-Milk Bandwagon, was it possible I was missing something?

Like John, Kim countered my question with big science-y words—and a heavy dose of skepticism. Her reply:

“Athletes will often cite a superior cocktail of hormones and bioactive compounds combined with a protein-packing punch as some of the performance enhancing or recovery properties of human breast milk. But an adult stomach’s naturally acidic environment could break down these potentially positive bioactive components, like immunoglobulins and cytokine inhibitors, rendering them useless.”

Proponents of breast milk also talk about the percentage ratio of whey to casein, 60-to-40, as providing more whey (and therefore, faster recovery) as compared to cow’s milk at 20-to-80. But there’s a catch, Kim warns: the protein content of breast milk is directly related to the content of the mother’s diet during lactation. If you’re buying breast milk online, you have no way of knowing for sure whether your supply is a byproduct of Whole Foods or Colonel Sanders.

That’s not all, says Kim: “There is no regulation whatsoever on the black market of breast milk. Samples from strangers could be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria and transmit diseases including HIV, hepatitis or syphilis.”

While appropriate for infants, there’s certainly no scientific benefit, and there’s nothing in the medical literature that says anything about adults consuming breast milk for performance or health benefits.

So, as John says, let this rumor just die already. Babies can have the liquid gold—runners, stick with the squishy food in foil.