So, when I began hearing that an increasing number of (mostly male) fitness enthusiasts were drinking (human) breast milk as a dietary supplement, I was more than a little intrigued — and, yes, a little skeeved out. Of course, this being R29 Wellness, it was only a matter of time before one of us was roped in to try this stuff out for real. Unfortunately, I’ve become something of a guinea pig around here — so, rather than wait to be drafted, I sucked up my squeamishness and ventured bravely into territory from which I was 20+ years removed. Goblet in hand, in the name of science (and, let’s face it, a good story), I accepted my mission.
The Goal: To ascertain the relative value of human breast milk as a post-workout recovery ingestible.
A recent New York Magazine feature entitled “Meet the Men Who Drink Breast Milk” set off a flurry of interest in what, to many, must have seemed the wackiest of wacky new fitness trends. Of course, exercise buffs are probably familiar with the practice: In the body-building community, the purported nutritional benefits of breast milk have been the subject of (colorful) conversation in forum threads for years. One particularly enthusiastic proponent calls breast milk the best supplement ever, citing a number of famous bodybuilders who have used it for significant gains over the last few decades — including Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many of breast milk’s fans attribute its effectiveness to human growth hormone, a complex compound that has been used by the likes of Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong to boost athletic performance. Often used as a treatment for growth disorders in children, HGH is illegal without a prescription. However, scientists have found that, while breast milk does contain a complex cocktail of hormones, HGH doesn’t seem to be one of them. Still, whatever magic breast milk does contain has researchers perplexed — despite decades of trying, we still haven’t found a way to replicate breast milk’s inherent health benefits with synthetic formula. Indeed, the consensus in both the scientific and bodybuilding communities is that breast milk contains a mysterious, completely unique cocktail of compounds not found in your average protein shake — or cow.
Of course, before I put anything in my body, I wanted to make sure there was at least some potential nutritional value involved. I spoke with Shira Lenchewski, a NY- and LA-based nutritionist, about whether there was any real science behind the hype. Turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, breast milk is packed with valuable nutrients and other compounds that make it ideal for athletic bodies, as well as growing ones. “Freudian ick-factor aside, human breast milk contains biologically active anti-inflammatory agents such as lactoferrin, immunoglobulins, and cytokine inhibitors. Because intense workouts involve muscle wear-and-tear, these anti-inflammatory properties could certainly assist in speeding up the body’s recovery process.”
But, Lenchewski did offer a word of caution: “It’s important to note that not all breast milk is created equal. The composition of macro- and micronutrients changes over time, with protein levels decreasing over the first four to six weeks after delivery.”
Like most everything else these days, breast milk is relatively easy to come by on the Internet. It goes without saying that, for women who would like to breastfeed their children but are unable to do so — because they’ve undergone a mastectomy, for example, or because their bodies simply don’t produce enough milk on their own — sites like OnlyTheBreast.com are a godsend. As I found out, they’re also great for dudes looking to make some serious muscle gains — as well as, apparently, those with a breastfeeding kink.
I found that a quick visit to the “Willing to Sell to Men” section of Only The Breast presented me with a plethora of generous ladies willing to sell (theoretically) freshly-squeezed product to buyers around the country. The ad I settled on carried the following headline: “ADULTS & INFANTS *MILK DONOR CERTIFIED* NICU Nurse/Mommy (Trusted & Experienced) 2,000+oz available.” I thought this seemed as trustworthy as any of the other options — and she agreed to ship my 36 ounces of milk (at $3 an ounce, she was no bargain) from her home in Alabama to New York City (overnight, in a crate of dry ice, since breast milk spoils within 24 hours of thawing).
I know what you’re thinking: What could be sketchier than purchasing bodily fluids over the Internet? And, you’re right. While it’s a completely legal practice, it’s not without its risks. Last year, the New York Times reported that 64% of samples exchanged on milk-sharing sites were contaminated with staph, while 34% contained strep. A Today story written last month cautioned that breast milk obtained online could contain viruses like hepatitis and HIV. That story pointed interested parties to the Human Milk Banking Association Of America, an organization aimed at making this process safer for all involved by setting up physical milk banks in cities around the country. However, the closest milk bank to R29's NYC office happens to be in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts. So, I decided to brave the bacteria and order from this “trusted and experienced” Alabama donor.
I ended up ordering 36 ounces of milk, enough for three post-workout portions. In order to obtain the most accurate findings possible, I made sure to keep the length and intensity of my workouts (as well as the amount of time between workout and milk consumption) constant in the weeks before, during, and after the breast milk phase of the experiment. For the sake of comparison, in addition to the breast milk, I also included phases of a) nonfat cow’s milk and b) my go-to protein shake: cow’s milk; low-carb, dairy-free protein powder; a banana; and frozen fruit.
So, how did it taste? When I had it cold, right out of the fridge, my sample was pretty mild (although the taste became stronger as the milk’s temperature rose). However, the milk had a very particular aftertaste, one which is difficult to explain in words. One R29er compared it to baby vomit — which, of course, makes a poetic kind of sense. I did get some bile on each tasting, but there were also notes of yeast, bread, and orange juice that’s about a week past its sell-by date. Perhaps the most accurate way to describe it is to say that it tasted very, very much like it came from inside a human: musty, clammy, and at least a little bit stale.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that I found the breastmilk to be genuinely repulsive. Nor would it be an exaggeration to disclose that I could barely gulp it down the first time around — and it didn’t get much easier on the second try.
For the third and final portion, I have to admit that I cheated a bit, blending it with some frozen strawberries in an attempt to mask that unpalatable aftertaste. If possible, that “bodily function” element was even stronger with the added sweetness of the fruit. I laughed bitterly at the universe’s sick sense of humor as I swallowed my hellish “milkshake” as fast as I possibly could, freezing my mouth in the process. I thought of the big, beefy, body-building bros who suck this stuff down on the regular. I prayed for their strength (well, I prayed for their evidently less-sensitive palates).
Truly horrifying aftertaste notwithstanding, I have to admit that the stuff actually worked. Compared to both the milk and the vitamin- and protein-packed smoothie, the breast milk facilitated what honestly felt like a miraculous post-workout recovery. Even after a two-hour, full-body routine of cardio (Spinning) and weight-lifting, 12 ounces of breast milk made me feel like I had just awoken from a three-hour nap, completely revitalized and ready for the rest of my day. Within 10 minutes of gulping down each dose, I felt light, strong, and full of energy — like my heavy-duty workout had been nothing more than a dream.
That said, I don’t think I’d ever go down that road again. While it’s possible that the taste could potentially be plastered over with a serious arsenal of spices, fruits, and veggies, at $3 an ounce, it’s way, way out of any normal person’s price range. Plus, it’s, you know, breast milk. At the end of the day, no amount of energy (or potential bulging biceps) could possibly make me forget that. For me, at least, the whole “came from a faceless human” thing is something of a dealbreaker.