Health & Fit Should Adults Be Consuming Breast Milk?

03:13  04 november  2021
03:13  04 november  2021 Source:   shape.com

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The benefits of breast milk for babies are impressive and well-documented.

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"Immunoglobulins [antibodies], macrophages, and stem cells present in human milk help babies stay healthy," explains Andrea Syms-Brown, IBCLC, a lactation consultant based in New York City. Essentially, the compounds in breast milk help your baby build a robust immune system, strengthening their defense system against infections and helping them fight disease.

In other words, "human breast milk has many incredible properties that play an important role in protecting babies from infections and viruses when their immune systems are so new and weak," adds Angela Wallace, R.D., a registered dietitian and family food expert in Canada. (There's a reason it's called "liquid gold.") It also contains growth hormone to encourage proper development and beneficial bacteria to support gut health in the baby. What's more, breastfeeding can also lower the risk of sudden infant death syndrome — the sudden and unexpected death of a baby less than 1-year-old without an obvious cause — and protect against other health issues, such as Type 1 diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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But some recent science suggests that the benefits of human milk could extend to adults, helping to treat or prevent certain infections just as it can do in newborns. Some companies are even already in the midst of packaging breast milk as a supplement that's purportedly digestible and suitable for adults. And then you have the human milk-drinking proponents, such as bodybuilders and exercise enthusiasts, who claim the liquid can help them build muscle (despite being totally unfounded), and celebrities, such as Riverdale's KJ Apa. ICYMI, Apa recently posted a video on Instagram of him drinking his "milk machine" wife's breast milk. Not surprisingly, this ignited a veritable firestorm of comments and conversations about whether or not grown humans should really be sipping on milk made specifically for babies.

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Babies benefit from it. So, can you? Find out whether grown adults should really be consuming breast milk, according to experts. © Getty Images Babies benefit from it. So, can you? Find out whether grown adults should really be consuming breast milk, according to experts.

So, what's the verdict? Here, experts weigh in on breast milk's potential (if any) health benefits for adults, be it consumed as a liquid or packaged in a pill.

What Does the Research Say About the Benefits of Breast Milk for Adults?

As you might guess, the research on the potential benefits of breast milk in adults is, well, extremely limited. There is some evidence that drinking your own breast milk could fend off infections or mild illnesses and that when used topically, it can offer wound-healing properties, peer-reviewed research on the fluid's effects on adults is lacking.

That said, a 2019 scientific review looked at some of the unexpected uses for breast milk in adults, such as its topical use for eczema and dermatitis. Turns out, the liquid may very well have the power to ease the two dermatological conditions, according to the researchers. The review also found that when human breast milk was applied topically to the eyes of infants with conjunctivitis (aka pink eye), breast milk was comparable in effectiveness to a common antimicrobial.

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That same review also suggests the sugar molecules found in breast milk — called human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) — could help prevent group B Streptococcus infections in humans. (This group of infections includes, for example, bone and joint infections, pneumonia, and meningitis, according to the CDC.) Someday, these molecules could potentially even replace antibiotics for treating infections, according to the researchers.

"There is some research that looks at potential benefits and uses of breast milk but mainly in use for mothers and babies," says Wallace. "Going beyond that and using it in adults of all ages and backgrounds needs substantially more research" before experts can confidently say it can deliver certain health benefits.

So Should Adults Be Consuming Breast Milk?

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For adults, supplementing with breast milk is an interesting concept. It makes sense to want to receive the same benefits (immunoglobulins or antibodies, prebiotics, probiotics, and more) that your baby picks up from milk. But Wallace is quick to point out that breast milk is made and designed for babies, who are very different from adults developmentally. Not to mention, experts aren't even sure whether adults can actually get the same perks from the liquid.

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"I have no doubt about the benefits of breastmilk during infancy and early childhood, even when coming from donor milk, but supplementing with adults is a whole other ball game," says Wallace. "A lot more research is needed to ensure its safety and effectiveness."

There are also some qualities that make breast milk a unique food source for babies, such as the fact that "it has the perfect blend of carbohydrates, protein, fats, and vitamins to support newborn and early childhood development," notes Wallace. "Breast milk [also] changes composition based on the baby's needs."

See, breast milk naturally progresses through three different phases depending on the age of your baby. For the first few days following delivery, milk begins as "colostrum," which is the thick, yellow-colored, fluid breasts produce while pregnant that's especially rich in immune-supporting components. Then, for the next two weeks, breast milk changes into "transitional milk," which includes high levels of fat, lactose, and water-soluble vitamins, before finally becoming "mature milk," which is 90 percent water (think: hydration) and 10 percent carbs, proteins, and fats for growth and energy in the baby, at 10-15 days post-birth, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

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Babies also tend to have specific enzymes in their bodies, such as the lactase enzyme, that allows for easy digestion of breast milk, which is about 50 percent lactose. Research suggests, however, that as humans age, their body's production of lactase decreases, making it harder to digest lactose. And while plenty of people have no problem consuming lactose-containing products, about 30 million American adults have some degree of lactose intolerance by the age of 20, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Meaning, a substance as rich in lactose as human breast milk can be particularly difficult for millions of adults to consume without feeling ill to some degree (think: nausea, bloating, diarrhea, gas, abdominal pain). (Related: Is Dairy Healthy? The Pros and Cons of Consuming Dairy)

It's also important to remember that breast milk composition is very much influenced by the mother expressing the milk, notes Wallace. This can be a huge benefit for an infant. For example, if you're breastfeeding and you have the flu, your body will create antibodies and pass those antibodies through your breastmilk to your baby, lowering the likelihood that they get sick themselves. But this also goes both ways.

"Prescription or illicit drugs, diet, and alcohol can all influence what breast milk contains," says Wallace. "Not all that passes through is good. There's always a risk of harmful pathogens being passed through breast milk as well such as infectious diseases or food-borne illnesses." And just as this can have repercussions in babies, it can also negatively impact adults — which is exactly why knowing the exact source of breast milk you might consume is essential. It's also why it's important for breast milk supplement companies to screen the donor milk before using it in a capsule.

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What About Breast Milk Supplements?

Companies such as Trulacta are currently creating capsules that contain HMOs, growth factors, immunoglobulins, stem cells, and other health benefiting-enzymes from donor breast milk.

But as is true with other supplements out there (which — reminder! — are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration), it's unclear if isolated nutrients have the same health impacts as the whole package the way nature made it. "This is considered a processed food," reminds Syms-Brown. "Babies are not getting that — they are getting milk in its raw, direct form." And as you've likely heard, so many nutritional and medical experts say in the past, whole foods — whether a freshly-picked tomato right off a vibe or untampered breast milk directly from the source — are usually the best way to get all the potential perks and nutrients from any given food. (See more: 10 Whole Foods That Are Better for Workout Recovery Than Supplements)

So while there's a hypothetical that breast milk-derived supplements could have benefits for adults, until it's proven, it's hard to know.

Screening donors would also be an important part of the supplement question. And Trulacta, for example, uses donor milk to source its supplements, noting that it "screens donors' blood for pathogens, sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, and contagious illnesses." It also says that "all donations also meet federal regulations for supplements. If a donation doesn't pass each test, it is rejected by the milk bank."

"Breast milk is such a super source of nutrition for babies because of the way it changes to alter their growing needs," reminds Wallace. With a supplement, there's no way to know if you are getting what your body truly needs. Plus, of course, you're not a baby and, thus, the nutrition in breast milk is not designed for your actual needs. And while, yes, the liquid contains growth hormone — which stimulates skeleton growth in children and muscle growth and repair in adults, according to the NLM — there's no evidence that it can actually help build muscle in adults. Again, its inclusion in breast milk is specifically for rapidly-growing babies."

Ultimately? "When thinking of supplements as a whole, I do believe they serve a purpose — that purpose being to supplement the diet," says Wallace. (Say you don't like fish, you could potentially benefit from an omega-3 fatty acid supplement.) But with a breastmilk supplement, it's hard to know the effectiveness. Also, it's hard to know what the purpose of a supplement would be (general health, immune system bolstering, gut health?), in the first place.

Bottom Line

Tasting your own breast milk or using it topically on your baby's skin from time to time is likely fine — and could even have some benefits. But, as Wallace puts it, "I do not believe we are at the point where we can recommend human breast milk supplements for adult consumption" or even drinking the liquid regularly to reap any purported benefits. After all, "we need to learn more about its safety and even more so about how it would benefit adult health or not," she says. There a plenty of other milk options out there these days — for now, just stick to those.

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