Are you a mother with a newborn baby? Are you sore from breastfeeding but don’t want to use formula? Well pass that baby on to the baby daddy because men can lactate! Apparently, the ability to secrete that milky goodness from one’s nipples is a trait possible in men. However, rather than being a cool self-nourishment opportunity or an exciting party trick, male lactation may actually be a symptom of a much worse medical problem.
Male lactation is more accurately known by the name galactorrhea (which sounds cool when you say it out loud). The word lactation is sometimes avoided as it implies that the men are using it to breastfeed their young, which is often not the case. But I’ll use the term lactation here for convenience.
The cause of male lactation is not always clear but often has something to do with the hormone prolactin. Prolactin stimulates breast growth and lactation in women. It’s present in men as well for a host of other things, like sexual satisfaction! However, too much of a good thing can be bad and when prolactin levels in men get higher than Amy Winehouse (may she rest in peace), that’s when the milk flies.
Prolactin levels can soar for a number of reasons, which is where the potentially terrible medical conditions come into play. Sometimes, it might be due to a hormonal imbalance, which favours the production of prolactin. This may be due to recreational drugs, pathogens in the body or certain foods eaten in excess. It might also be due to a pituitary tumour, which would disrupt the normal production of hormones by the pituitary gland.
Scarily, puberty can bring on an onset of galactorrhea, although this is usually transient.
Love thy liver
Liver damage can also be an underlying cause. The pituitary gland regulates the production of hormones such as oestrogen and androgen. In turn, the liver processes these hormones and clears them from the system, to prevent any build-up. If the liver is damaged, this can no longer happen, so an increase in oestrogen causes a spike in the production of prolactin.
This is what happened to POW survivors in WWII. During their time in war camps, they experienced severe malnourishment leading to liver and pituitary failures. Once they were rescued, they were fed and began to recover. But the pituitary gland recovered quicker than the liver. The gland began producing hormones that the liver couldn’t cope with, eventually leading to male lactation.
Liver damage can occur from a number of factors, not just malnourishment. Obesity and alcoholism are two more traits that can cause liver damage, so keep your fat in check and don’t drink too much. No one likes a milk-based cocktail.
Babies and bats
It’d actually be pretty terrifying if you were a man and all of a sudden, your nipples were leaking. Galactorrhea is also often accompanied by breast enlargement (aka man boobs), so that’s even more embarrassing. It’s even worse though when it happens in babies.
Yes, newborn babies, whether male or female, have been found with both breast enlargement and milk secretion. This is often called neonatal milk or witch’s milk. This type of lactation is due to hormonal exchange from mother to baby during breastfeeding. Symptoms usually subside once lactation stops. The name witch’s milk comes from the myth that “if milk is not repeatedly expressed, witches would suckle infant’s breasts and leave their curse or mark”…yikes!
The lactation phenomenon is not just seen in humans though; males of some animals have been observed lactating too. Males of the dyak fruit bat have shown some lactation, although only a few males have been observed, and with not a lot of milk. And of those lactating males, none have been observed actually nourishing young. This is where the debate over use of the word ‘lactation’ comes from.
It’s not known whether these observations were due to some pathogen in the air or if it was natural. If natural, it does bring up the question of why males lactate, or rather, why don’t males lactate? Surely, as women are carrying the baby during pregnancy, the least the man can do is help feed it. I’ll leave you with that thought.
What does it taste like?
But there you have it, male lactation. If you have any questions let me know but I’m going to pre-empt things by suggesting an answer to a question I am anticipating:
Question: My male friend is lactating, is it safe to drink and what might it taste like?
My answer: I don’t know if it’s safe to drink, but I’ve heard women’s breast milk tastes like blood. Also, if your ‘friend’ is actually you, you should probably see a doctor.
If you have any other questions, please write them in the comments!
P.S. If you have access to online science journals, I recommend looking up a paper called “A male infant with gynecomastia-galactorrhea” by Dr Devidyal for a fascinating example of a baby with breast development as well as lactation. Quite interesting but frightening picture.