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It’s kind of ironic that in the world of sports nutrition, where tomorrow’s innovations cannot come fast enough, one of the latest fads has roots in the Mesozoic Era, not long after dinosaurs roamed the earth. Human breast milk is hardly something an avid fitness enthusiast would consider a performance supplement. Yet breast milk is having its moment thanks to its purported superiority to cow’s milk for building muscle.
Where to separate myth from fact? Let’s start here: All animal milk begins as colostrum, a precursor to breast milk that is loaded with highly concentrated hormones, growth factors, and important nutrients for developing the structure and function of the entire body. During the first few days, the concentration of key growth factors in a cow’s colostrum drops off markedly until they are virtually undetectable in the normal milk that follows and eventually makes its way to your supermarket shelf. However, in humans, while there is a drop-off, breast milk continues to hold a higher concentration (per milliliter) of these key hormones for several weeks to months after the colostrum phase. Thus the belief that consuming human breast milk will increase muscle size and strength has been perpetuated. However, it is not quite that simple.
First, the level of hormones in regular breast milk is relatively low, concentrated in the fairly small amount of colostrum. Second, the growth and development needs of an infant differ from that of a bodybuilder. While the concentration of hormones may be higher in human breast milk, the adult human digestive system is far more developed than that of an infant and not as absorbent to the growth factors in colostrum. Neither research nor practice has shown that colostrum can build muscle any faster than regular cow’s milk or whey protein.
Perhaps the most concerning issue is how to get clean breast milk. While it is available from various sources, nursing moms taking to Craigslist tend to be the leaders of the field, and in these instances, the risk of contamination is very high. Reports suggest that 74% of the samples obtained from black-market sources have significant levels of bacteria, such as staph and strep, that would fail regular milk tests.
Setting risk aside, breast milk may in fact be a good ingredient as it does have some powerful constituents for improved performance, but questions still must be answered. Rather than drop serious bucks trying to find good breast milk, consider several solid alternatives besides the standard dairy-based protein powders you’ve come to know. Powdered colostrum contains specific bioactive peptides that can help improve muscle size, strength, and overall performance. Bonded amino acids and other bioactive peptides boost muscle protein synthesis, improve immune function, and are becoming more widely available. In addition, there are new ingredients that focus on mTOR pathway activity, increasing the potential for muscle development. As research continues, the possibilities grow.
Down the road, breast-milk alternatives could be found in primates, our closest kin, who possess similar milk characteristics, and thus a host of monkey-milking farms may be the wave of the future. Until then, train hard, eat right, and use supplements that are verified to be safe.
Got Milk? In addition to protein, regular cow’s milk provides fast-digesting carbs (lactose), making it a good post-workout choice.