Risky Fitness: human breast milk as protein supplement

Oliver Grigg, Print Sports Editor

Human breast milk is not just for infants anymore. It has emerged through word-of-mouth that milk is liquid gold for body builders.

The milk is taking a new identity as a post-workout protein supplement for body builders to enhance recovery and build bulging muscles. The milk is a nutritional goldmine because it is packed with minerals, vitamins and antibodies to protect from infection. Most importantly, milk is filled with protein, which is critical to post-workout muscle recovery and athletic performance.

“There are a lot of antibodies in [breast milk] from an immune system standpoint that help the body recover,” Tavis Piattoly, sports dietitian and nutritionist for the Tulane Athletic Department, said. “[Breast milk] can boost insulin growth. For a body builder or athlete, that can be very effective for anabolic response.” 

The question is whether a body builder really needs to drink human’s breast milk to gain an edge. Piattoly said no. 

“There have been no studies that look at the effects of human breast milk on muscle protein synthesis in an athletic population,” Piattoly said. “Anything you hear about [breast milk as a protein supplement is] anecdotal. It hasn’t been studied yet.”

Most alarming about the use of this unusual protein supplement is that many diseases are transferable through milk, and body builders are purchasing it through internet vendors such as Craigslist. A 2013 study by American Academy of Pediatrics found that the majority of breast milk purchased on the internet is “high-risk,” with 74 percent of samples containing dangerous microbial contamination, including staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria.

Most recently, the risk prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to release a warning against consuming breast milk acquired from individuals through the internet. 

“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,” the warning stated. “In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks.”

Despite the lack of evidence and the dangers of disease transmission, breast milk remains attractive to body builders. The milk contains a high number of vitamins, such vitamins A, C, D, E and K, which are all essential to growth and immune health. Lactose helps to decrease the amount of unhealthy bacteria in the stomach and improves the absorption of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

“[Breast milk] provides a protective effect against respiratory illnesses, ear infections, gastrointestinal diseases, and allergies including asthma, eczema and atopic dermatitis,” the APA stated in a 2012 study.

The most important element of human breast milk for body builders, however, remains its high levels of whey and casein proteins, which are used in protein supplementation products, beverages and bars. According to the APA, approximately 60 percent of all protein in the milk is whey, while 40 percent is casein. 

“Whey protein has about a two-hour spike in the blood’s amino acid levels, while casein has about a four hour spike in the blood’s amino acid levels,” Piattoly said. “When you combine the two after a workout session, there’s a longer response of muscle protein synthesis.”

While there is no research of human breast milk’s effects on athletic performance and muscle growth, body builders have been encouraged by studies that have found alpha-lactalbumin, the primary whey protein in human breast milk, and colostrum, a liquid produced by the mammary glands during late pregnancy, can improve body composition, enhance performance, decrease recovery time and prevent sickness. 

A 2002 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism investigated the effect of eight weeks of supplementation with bovine colostrum and found that the supplementation improved sprint performance better than whey. Similarly, a 2002 study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport examined the effect of supplementation with bovine colostrum and found that it enhanced recovery.

“There has been research to show that post-workout, [colostrum] is very effective at helping the muscle recover,” Piattoly said. 

Protein powders that contain alpha-lactalbumin are commercially sold. BiProUSA makes a supplement that contains the protein, which helps to build and maintain muscle, promote a healthy immune system and is rich in tryptophan. BiProUSA’s product BioZzz Alpha-lactalbumin contains 20 grams of protein, no fat, no sugar and 0 grams of carbs.

“[BioZzz] has a higher dose of tryptophan, which helps induce sleep and rest,” Piattoly said. “Sleep is important for growth hormone recovery, hormonal balance and keeping stress hormones low.”

Until research finds that human breast milk is effective as a protein supplement and that it can be safely screened, handled and stored, it’s in a body builder’s best interest to not drink it. Rather, purchase commercially sold protein supplements. Or maybe just drink regular milk. 

“I would recommend for humans milk or some variety of milk [that’s not human breast milk],” Piattoly said. “You always run the risk [when purchasing the milk online]. You don’t know what diseases that it’s possibly going to have.”