Galacto-Goddesses Wanted to Help Rebuild Civilization!
October 6, 2010 2:27 PM   Subscribe

Hypothetical post-apocalyptic usefulness of lactating women: not only the first time that particular phrase has been typed, but ALSO a question which has been bugging me for years.

Okay: we all know that breastmilk is supposedly the most magical stuff this side of unicorn boogers. We also know that it's a "living" fluid, and contains various antibodies and immune system-strengthening compounds.

For many years, I've wondered if, in the aftermath of some sort of biological/terroristic/zombie apocalypse, a lactating woman might be useful to have around... not just for her baby, but for grown-ups, too. Let's pretend for a moment that milk supply isn't an issue for Hypothetical Post-Apocalyptic Nursing Mom (which it might not be - at my lactation-tastic peak, I produced something like two quarts a day). Would grown-ups who drank her milk receive the same benefits as a baby would? And would the potential benefits to apocalypse-ravaged survivors be worth the demands a nursing mom would place on the group (increased need for calories, for one)?

I ask because every time I see a natural disaster on TV, I imagine a similar disaster hitting my town, and one of the first thoughts that pops into my head is invariably "MAYBE I SHOULD RELACTATE! IT COULD BE USEFUL!"

Well... COULD it? Or am I insane?
posted by julthumbscrew to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
...I think you are my favorite person on metafilter.

Anyway. I know nothing about the nutritional value of breast milk and how useful it would be to grown-ups, but I have a feeling supply might be the most important factor. I know we're supposed to ignore that part, but unless they're killing their babies off (it IS end of the of world as we know it!) I don't think it could provide sustenance for more than one more person. I've never lactated though. And I have no idea much a baby/human would drink in a day.

How easy is it to start lactating again? Do you just have to think really hard about babies and it happens? Seriously. No idea.

I have a feeling some may label this chatfilter, but I vote no on that.
posted by two lights above the sea at 2:37 PM on October 6, 2010

For what it is worth the closing scene of East of Eden features the daughter breast feeding a dying man. Breast milk production takes difficult to digest calories and converts them into an easy to digest form high in protein and fat. That may be useful in some situations but of course production is limited and your caloric inputs must exceed your output since the process is no 100% efficient. So yes, it might be useful in treating the starving and sick but it probably isn't viable on the long term and it certainly doesn't scale well.
posted by ChrisHartley at 2:40 PM on October 6, 2010

My very unscientific and non-medical guess is that it's only a boost to the baby who, as of yet, has no significant defenses against the world at large, which people generally gain in growing up around other people. Therefore, benefits to other adults would slim at best, unless the other person was from a different part of the world and has not yet been subjected to the local diseases (possibly, I'm just guessing).

Any benefit in caloric intake would be limited, versus directly eating the food. Some energy is used in digesting the food the mother eats, and more in the production of milk. The milk would be more nutritious than water, but there was content lost in transmission, so to speak, though ChrisHartley has a good point on ease of consumption vs. raw foods.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:42 PM on October 6, 2010

It could be useful for someone who is immunocompromised, from disease or cancer perhaps. This guy, who is battling cancer, "swears by" it. Here's a local news article reproduced on a blog. Apparently there was a study at Lund University about its effect in battling HPV, but I can only find a few references, and not the original paper.

Babies don't have a full adult complement of antibodies, which is why it's so great for them.

Normal healthy adults, or even for minor (i.e., non-immunocompromising) illnesses? Doubt it's worth the trouble.
posted by supercres at 2:44 PM on October 6, 2010

You'd really be better off with goats or sheep if your post-apocalyptic scenario features a shortage of human food. Converting grass to milk makes more sense than converting eg rice or meat to milk. Human milk might be more nutritious but expanding your range of available caloric sources is worth the trade off.
posted by ChrisHartley at 2:48 PM on October 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There's good news and bad news! The good news is that relactating isn't that hard, particularly not if it's not been that long since you had kids. It takes either hormone shots or else dry-nursing for a couple weeks. (Usually.) Supply will typically increase to support whatever demands are placed on you, given adequate rest and hydration; I saw a mom of quints on a tv show once who had to hook 2-liter bottles up to her pump.

But. Breastmilk isn't identical forever. It has a very different immunological and nutritional profile right after birth than it does when the baby is a year old, and over time, both the immunological properties and the nutritional properties decline. By the time the kid is more than 2 or 3, it's essentially sugar water with traces of protein. All mammals work this way; this is why you have to continually "freshen" milk cows with new calves. Milk from the mother of a 4 year old will keep a newborn topped up in a pinch, but if it's the baby's only source of sustenance, things won't go well at all.
posted by KathrynT at 2:58 PM on October 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

Just because you might be interested, here's a pretty darn interesting three part series on male lactation and what it means to the world.

One of the factoids in that article that most blew my mind was that apparently a good number of men in Nazi concentration camps, though obviously starved for nutrients, began lactating. I'm not smart enough to know what that indicates, but your armageddon/lactation thing made me think of it.
posted by heatvision at 3:02 PM on October 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

In addition to what KathrynT already said, assuming the adults are healthy, then no, galacto-goddess isn't going to be giving them anything their own immune systems can't already provide. Sick people, yes possibly. Mom only produces antibodies for things she has been exposed to (or baby has been exposed to and brought back to mom). So that might have to factor into it, your galacto goddess is going to need to be exposed to whatever it is the sick people are fighting. So I guess the nursing mom be nursing in both senses of the word.
posted by Joh at 3:15 PM on October 6, 2010

We also know that it's a "living" fluid, and contains various antibodies and immune system-strengthening compounds.

For just-born babies with baby immune systems, maybe.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:16 PM on October 6, 2010

Not East of Eden, Grapes of Wrath, final scene. American classic. I guess not read.
posted by A189Nut at 3:18 PM on October 6, 2010 [7 favorites]

It comes down to energy economics. It takes a lot of energy for a woman to produce milk, so that a lactating woman has to eat extra. If a woman's milk were providing all the nutrition for a person of the same weight, the lactating woman would have to eat MORE herself than the two of them would without the lactation.
posted by neuron at 4:36 PM on October 6, 2010

Response by poster: Hi, all - a clarification: I was envisioning the Galacto-Goddesses' benefits as more of an immune/superfood thing - NOT as a sole source of food for anyone (beyond a baby) - I am aware that would defy physics like crazy.

Imagining a nursing mom successfully combating, say, the swine flu, and wondering if she'd produce antibodies of use to OTHER grown-ups, though... THAT interests me. And the anecdotes about human milk being used for the sick/dying are great. Awesome answers so far, everybody.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:25 PM on October 6, 2010

Best answer: contains various antibodies and immune system-strengthening compounds.

I only know anything about equine reproduction, but maybe it's worth looking into parallels with people.

(As I understood it[*]) In horses, the antibodies/immune boosts are only helpful to the foals up until a certain point, at which time the digestive system finishes developing. The changes--something like "pores" in the intestines get smaller, and the antibodies etc become too large to pass through without being simply digested or excreted--make it so at that point, no matter how good the milk is, it's just a food. (And as with people, the milk is only colostrum right at first, and then the protective elements as well as the richness of it fade slowly as milk production continues, so the longer they've been lactacting the less good the milk is.) This change determines the ideal times to vaccinate foals, based on when the mother's milk will no longer be effective at helping prevent disease.

A mother can only put into the milk things that she already has, so it wouldn't make sense for her to drink it for the unicorn-like qualities.

Perhaps it's different in people, but it seemed like a helluva lotta calories went into the mare to produce not a whole lotta calories in milk. I poured grain down one mare's throat--up to four feedings per day, each with several gallons of high-quality food meant for nursing mares--and she still looked like a toast rack when I decided that the baby just had to come off (weaned the baby much earlier than I wanted, in fact). I started supplementing baby with baby food as soon as she could figure out how to eat it, and gave her as much as she'd eat, and she still gobbled down all the calories her momma took in and then some. In short, having a person process food for other people internally seems like a losing proposition calorie-wise.

[*] I researched all this good stuff 5 years ago when it was relevant, and haven't refreshed my memory since, so my understanding may be kind of fuzzy. But it's a direction to start when looking into the unicorn-like qualities of women's breast milk.
posted by galadriel at 6:44 PM on October 6, 2010

Best answer: For just-born babies with baby immune systems, maybe.

Not just baby immune systems (which is a good and very important point) but baby digestive systems. In humans it is like galadriel is describing for horses, a new born baby's gut is slightly leaky to allow intact milk proteins to be absorbed, an adult's isn't. It's not pores in this case. The intestine is lined with a single layer of cells, all joined really tightly to the cells next to them by protein complexes called tight junctions*. This forms a semi-permeable barrier, only allowing some things to pass (either through the cells or between them).

In very young children (and people with some diseases such as imflammatory bowel disease) these connections between the cells aren't as strong and larger molecules can pass through. This allows the immune proteins to get in and also faster uptake of proteins and fat for nutrition, but it doesn't last that long. As the intestinal tissue matures and the gut bacteria colonise and the immune system sorts itself out (the gut is a major immune organ in it's own right), the tight junctions close up and the gut stops being leaky. I'm not sure of the timeline but I imagine that after a few months the baby is mostly metabolising milk like an adult would, particularly given the mother is only adding lots of that immune-goodness for a short while after birth anyway. It certianly doesn't persist into childhood.

So no, having a lactating mother around wouldn't be useful in the way you're hoping (although it's a fun idea!). Any immune-based molecules in the milk will be either digested prior to absorption or excreted, it's not going to infer immunity to the person drinking it. And one cancer guy might swear by it but that doesn't impress me, you can find plenty of cancer patients who think rainbows are curing their disease. Leaky gut issues in adults generally leads to disease on it's own and are likely to trigger inflammation (because of the bacteria that live in there). So I don't see how adding breast milk would help in that case, and I can also imagine it being even less useful as the localised immune response is already crazy.

Plus, she can only pass on the immunity she has. Lactating doesn't make you a super iantibody factory, if a flu strikes she has just as much chance of gaining immunity as everyone else in the group. Except giving up energy in her breast milk will probably make her less robust and more likely to be killed by the virus.

(* there are other protein complexes involved in joining the cells too, but the TJs are the ones relevant to this)
posted by shelleycat at 8:32 PM on October 6, 2010 [5 favorites]

Apparently there was a study at Lund University about its effect in battling HPV, but I can only find a few references, and not the original paper.

They isolated a single protein from human milk, mixed it with a oleic acid (a type of fatty acid) to form a specific complex, and showed that it killed HPV-infected cells in vitro (i.e. in a test tube, a good start but not convicing of anything). It also kills some cancer cells in vitro and in rats. I can't find the original article either or any follow up, but even if this complex does have anti-viral and/or anti-cancer properties in humans it's nothing like just drinking breastmilk and having that work.
posted by shelleycat at 8:42 PM on October 6, 2010

Response by poster: Shelleycat, that answer just gave me paroxysms of geeky joy. Thanks!
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:56 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Breastmilk also contains stem cells -- so perhaps rather than feeding her fellow survivors directly, the galacto-goddess would team up with a surviving scientist to provide a constant supply of stem cells that he could culture in a lab and multiply into some kind of treatment he provides to the people to keep their rampaging plague at bay.

Also, those of you making the connection between a nursing mother also being a kind of nurse -- this is not a coincidence of language. Back in ye olden days of yore, a sickly person might be literally nursed back to health by a lactating woman who let the patient drink her breastmilk.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:02 PM on October 6, 2010

Part of the reason why breastmilk is so immunoprotective is that it ... used to be... everywhere. Ie., all over baby's face and body, and it stayed there without being wiped up right away.

The antibodies in breast milk are good at marking bad bacteria (as opposed to "bacteria - it's ok as long as you're on the whitelist) identified as bad bacteria. Too much sanitation is also linked to increased risk for asthma.

And would the potential benefits to apocalypse-ravaged survivors be worth the demands a nursing mom would place on the group

If this particular person made, in their breastmilk, a very good antibody against whatever agent it is that causes an apocalypse that was caused by either a very transmissible deadly biological disease or classical zombie-ism. She'd be the Charlton Heston of "The Omega Man."

posted by porpoise at 9:06 PM on October 6, 2010

The amazing multifocal and apparently spontaneous outbreak of groups of American women organizing to send their breast milk to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake (in spite of the fact it was pretty easy to see that it couldn't possibly do much good) makes me think the feelings that motivate your question are quite widespread among women, and come from a deep source.

Then there's the whole question of menopause.

Menopause is very rare; it's just us, orca and pilot whales among thousands of species of mammals. In all the others, females are capable of getting pregnant almost right up until near the time of death from old age.

Menopause would make a lot more sense to me if it were to be associated with a critical physiological function, rather than hand-wavey invocations of 'grandmotherly support'-- a critical physiological function such as nursing your daughter's or niece's or cousin's babies so she could go on and get pregnant again sooner, say.

And there are some features of menopause and post-menopause that are at least intriguing from this point of view, including the fact that many women's breasts actually enlarge considerably post-menopausally, and that lots of minerals are sucked out of bone during this period, leading to the osteoporosis so common among elderly women. If those minerals were 'meant' to end up in the bones of related babies via nursing, it would be a lot easier to understand how such a state of affairs could have evolved.

I found only a few (very equivocal) claims that menopause is compatible with nursing.

Having nursed a baby does seem to reduce the incidence of breast cancer among older women. Perhaps loss of a tradition of breast feeding after menopause could account to some degree for the epidemic of breast cancer we are seeing these days.
posted by jamjam at 12:47 AM on October 7, 2010

Julthumscrew, I don't have any contributions I'm afraid, but if this thought popping into your head during apocalypse-porn makes you insane, I want to end up the same brand of crazy.
posted by greenish at 5:05 AM on October 7, 2010

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