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Breastmilk Biomarkers: A New Indicator of Health Status?

For roughly $200, new moms can now get a basic run-down on the nutrient spectrum and the potential toxins in their breast milk, thanks to a new company called Happy Vitals.

The company was founded by Drs. Eric and Andrea Feigl-Ding, a pair of Harvard scientists who recently became new parents themselves. Eric holds a dual PhD in Epidemiology and Nutrition; Andrea's got a PhD in Global Population and Reproductive Health.

Shortly after their son was born, the couple found themselves wondering if breast-feeding exclusively was providing adequate nourishment for their son. With all of the emerging science on toxins winding up in breast milk, they also wondered what environmental pollutants might also be transferred to their child along with the nutrients.

AndreaFeiglDingTheir affinity for science and data combined with the love for their newborn son led them on the journey that led to the creation of Happy Vitals. The company aims to attract the “quantified self” crowd---people who are highly proactive about their health, and who firmly believe in quantitative measurement of as many personal variables as possible.

In the midst of an explosion of wearable fitness trackers and apps, the Feigl-Dings insist that the movement needs to go beyond its current fixation on mobile tools that measure simple physiological measures like heart rate, respiration or sleep cycles and into the wild world of biomarkers.

“Quantified health is much more than how often you shake your Apple watch. Really good qualified health measures your biomarkers. We are a biomedical company,” says Dr. Eric. Although Happy Vitals may be emerging amid a wave of health tracking devices, its founders believe the company is so much more.

Easing Anxiety

Happy Vitals gives women the possibility of measuring the nutrient content of their breast milk. The company offers a variety of testing packages: HappyVitalsTestThe Basic Package ($169) provides quantitative assessment of the protein, fat, lactose, and glucose content. The Standard ($269) gives details on IgA, IgM, IgG, and Cortisol.

The Premium Package ($659.95) gives a thorough rundown on vitamins and minerals, including iron, folate, calcium, ferritin, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, B12, D and E. This package also includes tests for toxins like arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium.

Happy Vitals also offers add-ons for Omega-3 content ($54.95)

For mothers who are anxious about if their milk is nourishing enough—or if it contains significant levels of environmentally-derived toxins---this may be a good option.

The test kits are designed for ease of use: they provide the user with three small vials for collection of breast milk samples, as well as a specialized EPS cooler for safe temp-controlled transit of the samples to the analytic lab sites. The Happy Vitals website indicates that the company has contracted with “one of the largest groups of pathologists and clinical laboratory scientists in North America” to provide the analytic services.

So far, the company has not had any success in winning the hearts and minds of health insurers, and the tests are unfortunately not eligible for coverage under Health Savings Accounts. For the moment, breastmilk nutrition testing is a straight-up out-of-pocket expense.

In speaking with Dr. Eric, he said that he and his wife know first hand the anxieties that new parents face as they navigate the tumultuous first years of parenthood. They hope the data and guidance they can provide to new parents will empower them to be able to improve the lives of their children.

What’s the value of knowing what’s in your milk?

The Feigl-Dings recognize that data like this can only take people so far, but they believe that for many couples it can be the spark that triggers meaningful dietary and lifestyle changes. They plan to provide targeted nutrition recommendations depending on each person’s unique test results.

Nourishing Lifestyle Changes

For example, if a mother’s milk samples return showing low levels of DHA and EPA, they will provide a precise recommendation for increasing Omega-3 intake, which includes: quantity and frequency, from what sources, along with why it is important for their child’s development. The couple stresses that they are committed to evidence-based nutritional recommendations; they do not want to provide useless or misleading data.

Whole most women may not give much thought to the nutrient content of their milk, a growing number are definitely concerned about passing toxins on to their babies.

Happy Vitals provides testing for the most common and detrimental toxins to infants: arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium. This option requires users to send fingernail clippings from themselves and their infants.

An option like this brought to mind the situation in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been unknowingly exposed to high levels of lead in their water and will probably be carrying those toxins in their tissues for years to come.

EricFeiglDingAccording to Dr. Eric, “Lead and mercury are most dangerous to children due to it being able to pervade their blood brain barrier. It is really a children’s health issue.” Happy Vitals is already considering the possible role the company may play in communities dealing with environmental contamination.

In these places, it is not only parents of infants who need to be concerned, but also soon-to-be parents, those in the planning stages, or even non-parents who are just concerned for their own health.

Cultivating Confidence in Breastfeeding

Will breastmilk testing lead to a lot of worrying? Will it discourage women from breastfeeding out of fear that their milk doesn’t measure up, nutritionally, to commercially-available formulas?

These are certainly reasonable concerns. Dr. Eric stressed that Happy Vitals’ goal is certainly not to discourage breastfeeding, but rather to encourage healthy eating habits and lifestyles changes among new parents in a way that will directly benefit the children.

“We do not want to push people into formula, I am a nutritionist and scientist and know that breastmilk is best. We really care about evidence-based nutrition and toxin levels because as parents we want to prevent.“

So where else do they see their company headed? Besides providing tests for toxins in drinking water, they also hope to be able to provide nutritional testing to women before they become mothers. “In terms of prevention it is really about quantifying markers as early in the mother as possible. Pregravid nutrition is related to child health outcomes. Much of the child’s health status comes from in-utero and mother's preconception (factors).”

As their company begins to take off and more services are provided, the Feigl-Dings expect that the prices will begin to come down, making the tests more affordable to a wider sector of people.

In addition to Happy Vitals, the couple has also created a sister site called Milk Happy---currently in beta-test mode-- that creates a unique, online, safe “marketplace” for breastmilk sharing. Women who have extra breastmilk may make their surplus available through this marketplace to women who want breastmilk, but may be unable to make it themselves.

Nutrient / toxin testing is not required for participation in Milk Happy, but it is encouraged. For a limited time, Milk Happy participants will be able to have some of the Happy Vitals tests--such as Omega 3 analysis—free of charge.

END

Kathleen Jones MS, is a recent graduate of New York Chiropractic College where she received a degree in Applied Clinical Nutrition, and is currently a nutrition intern at Maryland University of Integrative Health. She resides in Washington DC and is pursuing certification as a Certified Nutrition Specialist practitioner through the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists.

 

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