“Some of the samples have such high bacterial content, it’s closer to sewer water.”
Top athletes are always looking for an edge over their competition. Occasionally, this drive will lead them to take extreme, dangerous or even illegal steps to gain that edge. And one of the latest trends to gain an advantage? Human breast milk.
The benefits of breastfeeding infants are well established, and breastfeeding is strongly recommended by health care professionals and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But that’s for babies. What about breast milk for adults? And what about breast milk as a way to bulk up and gain muscle weight? Or breast milk for treating certain kinds of cancer?
Before answering any of these questions, it’s best to start by asking, is it safe for adults to consume human breast milk at all?
The Food and Drug Administration says that there are a number of risks for consuming shared breast milk. These risks include “exposure to infectious diseases, including HIV, to chemical contaminants, such as some illegal drugs, and to a limited number of prescription drugs that might be in the human milk, if the donor has not been adequately screened. In addition, if human milk is not handled and stored properly, it could, like any type of milk, become contaminated and unsafe to drink.”
Safety of breast milk on the internet
A quick search on Facebook marketplace will show you that breast milk sharing and selling isn’t hypothetical. It’s already happening. Selling breast milk is not illegal. It is unregulated.
“When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk,” according to the FDA. In addition, the FDA says it is not likely that human milk has been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks.
In an episode of the Netflix docuseries (Un)Well, “Bulking Up with Breast Milk,” these questions about breast milk usage are raised.
Dr. Sarah Keim, Epidemiologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, was interviewed for the (Un)Well documentary series. She talked about a study she led that was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2015, titled, “More than a lucrative liquid: the risks for adult consumers of human breast milk bought from the online market.”
“I don’t think there’s really any circumstance, where one could recommend breast milk sharing,” Keim said. “Unless you have a lab in your kitchen, you really can’t test the milk yourself and know that it’s completely safe.”
Keim’s warnings aren’t hyperbole. Her study tested 102 samples of breast milk from across the country and showed that breast milk bought online contained detectable bacteria in 93 percent of the samples.
“Some of the samples have such high bacterial content, it’s closer to sewer water,” she said.
The study says that “the lack of pasteurization and testing not only indicates a bacterial risk but breast milk also exposes consumers to a host of infectious diseases, including cytomegalovirus, hepatitis B and C, HIV-1/2, HTLV-I&II and syphilis.”
Keim’s study came to the conclusion that breast milk purchased online is not optimal for adult nutrition or in the treatment of disease, as there are more risks than proven benefits.
“As adult consumers are generally ineligible for milk banks, unless milk is coming from a known source – a lactating partner, for instance – it comes from an online source and therefore poses many unknown potentials for communicable disease. Buying online potentially exposes the consumer to bacteria, viruses and contaminants that render this not a ‘clean’ ‘super food’ for performance nutrition or supplementation.”
Where breast milk is needed most
However, there are safe ways to get human breast milk for babies. The FDA recommends that, if after consultation with a health care provider, people who decide to feed a baby with human milk from a source other than the baby’s mother, should only use milk from a source that has screened its milk donors and taken other precautions to ensure the safety of its milk.
“There are human milk banks that take voluntary steps to screen milk donors and safely collect, process, handle, test and store the milk. In a few states, there are required safety standards for such milk banks. FDA has not been involved in establishing these voluntary guidelines or state standards.”
Verified milk banks can be found through organizations like Human Milk Banking, Association of North America.
There is another concern to consider when asking whether adults should consume human breast milk, is there enough?
Human breast milk is always in demand. It can be vital for premature babies to receive milk instead of formula. Less than half of mothers with premature babies can provide the milk needed for their babies to provide nutrients, immune and growth-promoting components.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the screening of milk donors has become more rigorous. This has made keeping a sufficient supply of donor milk even more difficult. Adults using human milk potentially diminish the donor supply from milk banks and take away milk from the premature babies that need it most.
So for the athlete looking to bulk up, there’s more than just the efficacy of breast milk in relation to performance to think about. The athlete must also consider the potential health risks and the damage they may be causing by using a limited supply of breast milk.
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