There are plenty of not-weird-at-all reasons why an adult might try breast milk. Because whatever is good enough for your baby is good enough for you; because you’re never going to have time for grocery shopping again; because your wife thinks it’s hilarious and likes tampering with your drinks. “I know a mom who was putting breast milk in her husband’s coffee for a week without him knowing,” Jennifer Hahn-Holbrook, who studies the health impacts of breastfeeding, jokes. But that doesn’t mean breast milk is a super food—or that it’s healthy for adults to chug with abandon.
Granted, as long as the breast milk comes from a known source (yourself, or someone you’re already having sex with) there’s little risk in giving it the old college try. Far more risky, however, is the budding, bizarre black market for breast milk that has emerged in recent years, based on the dual misconceptions that breast milk is some sort of super-food and that drinking strangers’ bodily byproducts is safe. One 2015 paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, chronicled the phenomenon and concluded that the risks of contamination and disease likely outweigh any potential rewards.
“In the adult market there are cancer patients who are desperate to try anything and a lot of people in the body-building and cross-fit communities who really don’t realize the dangers,” Sarah Steele, co-author of the paper, told the Guardian. “They think it’s a natural superfood. They don’t realize that it could be contaminated with bacteria.”
Hahn-Holbrook agrees, and adds that even if breast milk doesn’t (always) give you hepatitis, it probably won’t make you any stronger. “We can’t assume because it has benefits for infants that it’s going to have benefits for adults,” Hahn-Holbrook says. Infants’ stomachs are uniquely evolved to benefit from breast milk. On top of the basic nutrition, babies are born with receptors in their guts that receive information about the mother’s immune system, hormones, and overall health through her milk. “It’s information, but it’s also medicine,” she says. Adults, on the other hand, are unlikely to see any of those benefits when they chug black market breast milk because “when [babies] ween, those receptors go away.”
Besides, the sheer amount of breast milk an adult would have to drink for it to even theoretically have an effect is enormous. The average newborn needs only about 500 calories per day, achieved by drinking 2 to 3 cups of breast milk. For a full grown man on a 2,400-calorie-per-day diet, it would take roughly a gallon of breast milk to get the job done.
No one should drink that much of any kind of milk in one day.
Hahn-Holbrook thinks there could be a case made for studying breast milk’s potential benefits in cancer patients, but that’s the exception. Meanwhile, buying breast milk for adults from sterile human milk banks is unethical, she says, because that milk is earmarked for premature infants. Breast milk should not be seen as a new health food craze like a wheatgrass shot, Hahn-Holbrook says. “When you take a wheatgrass shot, you’re not taking it from a sick baby.”
Bottom line, it only makes sense to try organic, locally-sourced breast milk if you’re doing it while laughing over white Russians with the person you got into this mess with. There’s no reason to believe it’s good for you, but at least using your or your loved one’s own supply is safe, and doesn’t involve taking milk from premature kids to make protein shakes.
“Even from a scientific perspective breast milk is kind of magic,” Hahn-Holbrook says. Don’t mess with it.