By Liz Laing
Issue 133, November/December 2005
Mother’s milk is the perfect panacea for a whole host of ailments – from pinkeye to acne. Just a squirt will do the trick!
Most people know about the health benefits of breastfeeding, but few know about breastmilk’s medicinal benefits. Breastmilk is sterile, antibacterial, and has many healing properties. It can be used to treat a variety of ailments and can be applied topically for eye and ear infections, minor skin injuries, sore or cracked nipples, diaper rash, sore throats, and stuffy noses. Is breastmilk an everyday cure-all? Read on and judge for yourself.
When your child gets a cold and has a stuffy nose, drizzle breastmilk into each nostril. It will thin the mucus, and the milk’s natural antibodies will help fight infection. Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP, IBCLC’s nationally recognized pediatrician, author, and breastfeeding authority, encourages the use of breastmilk in this way. “I recommend breastmilk as the best nose drop for babies and children with colds,” he says. “The milk kills viruses on contact (sounds like a TV commercial!), and the best part is that it makes babies sneeze. The sneeze sends viruses, bacteria, dust, and more flying out of the nose at 100 mph.”
Several clinical studies have shown that since each mother’s milk is made specifically for her own baby, it is effective in ridding the infant’s eyes and nose of viruses and germs. I have used it on my own children, and even on myself. Recently, my son had pinkeye; when I applied my breastmilk to his eyes several times a day, the conjunctivitis cleared up. A friend of mine used her breastmilk on all her family members whenever they got pinkeye, and thus for years she was able to avoid having to buy prescription eyedrops.
You never know when breastmilk will come in handy. I got liquid soap in my eye once while in the locker room at my gym. My eye was burning and extremely red, and rinsing it with water didn’t help at all. I checked my purse for eyedrops but found none. Then I remembered the built-in medicine chest I carried around on my own chest. I went into a bathroom stall, cupped my hand, squirted out some milk, and bathed my eye in it. Ahhhhhh! Instant relief – the redness and painful stinging were gone. I was glad to have this option available, and felt proud that my body produces something that can be used to help heal other parts of my body. What a great way to recycle.
Besides colds and eye irritations, there are several other conditions that might benefit from the use of breastmilk. In most cases you simply express your milk into a clean saucer, cup, or bowl, then use a cotton ball or eyedropper to apply or squirt milk directly onto the area, as needed, for the desired results.
In many places – including Mexico, Russia, Africa, South America, and India – the use of breastmilk in alternative ways is quite common. One mother on a Midwifery Today online forum said, “In Nigeria, if a child has a condition of the eyes, such as mucus, we simply squirt a bit of breastmilk and it clears right up.”1
Besides healing common minor afflictions, breastmilk has recently been in the news for helping to treat more serious illnesses. Adult cancer patients have been drinking breastmilk in an attempt to boost their immune systems and cope better with the side effects of chemotherapy.2 While this is not a common practice, a milk bank in California has supplied a group of pioneering patients with breastmilk for the past few years. One lucky recipient of this donor milk, Howard Cohen of Palo Alto, California, strongly believes that ingesting breastmilk daily has helped his prostate cancer go into remission.3
Donor milk is used to treat a variety of health problems. I spoke with Pauline Sakamoto, RN, MS, executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose, California, about some of the other ways breastmilk benefits people. “Historically, human milk has been used for diseases and health conditions of adults and children and as a superior food for babies. These folk cures have been tested throughout time. Currently, there has been more interest in the scientific community to test the components of human milk’s effect on different health problems that plague us today. Hopefully, in the near future, we will validate the incredible power that our body has to promote growth, heal itself, and preserve its integrity via human milk.
Breastmilk may even kill cancer cells. In 1995 physician and immunologist Catharina Svanborg and a team of research biologists at Sweden’s Lund University discovered in breastmilk a protein compound, alpha-lactalbumin (they gave it the acronym HAMLET), that selectively induces apoptosis in tumor cells.4 In other words, HAMLET makes cancer cells commit suicide. In fact, it has killed every type of cancer the researchers have tested it against. HAMLET has also been used to successfully treat virally infected warts, which were reduced by 75 percent in volunteers who received daily treatments with an ointment containing the protein. The same viruses that cause warts are also linked to cervical cancer, genital warts, and some types of skin cancer. Well, we all knew that breastmilk is powerful.
You may wonder why this discovery of a possible cure for cancer has not received greater attention. Funding is part of the problem, but slowly, in the past decade, more attention has been paid to this small laboratory in a quiet corner of the world. Even the American Cancer Society has given its stamp of approval by giving a grant to Svanborg and her team to help fund further research into their discovery.
While this type of scientific news is exciting, let’s not forget the real miracle of breastmilk and its primary use. The healing powers of this liquid gold are incredible enough, but breastmilk’s most amazing quality is that it gives life. No other food or substance on earth comes close to doing what breastmilk does. Human breastmilk is the ideal food for human babies. Pediatrician Jay Gordon reminds us how crucial breastfeeding is when he says, “Babies denied breastmilk during the first year of life get sick and die at a much greater rate than babies who nurse.”
I am still amazed when I watch my son nurse. I know that his healthy, growing body is thriving because he is suckling the perfect food, which my body makes for his body. But in addition to satisfying this primary need, my breastmilk can help heal his body in other ways as well.
- Michael Day, “Adults Turn to Breast Milk to Ease Effects of Chemotherapy,” Daily Telegraph (16 January 2005); www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/01/16/nteat16. xml
- “The Man Who Swears by Breastmilk,” BBC News Online, UK edition (23 January 2005): http://news.bbc.co. uk/1/hi/health/4187697.stm
- Catharina Svanborg, MD, PhD, “Treatment of Skin Papillomas with Topical Alpha-Lactalbumin-Oleic Acid,” New England Journal of Medicine 350 (2004): 2663-2672.
Liz Laing, ACE, is a freelance writer and mother of four beautiful, breastfed children. She has been a stay-at-home mom for the past 12 years and most recently is overcoming the challenges of single motherhood. A certified childbirth educator and doula, Liz lives in Los Angeles, California.