Breastfeeding Benefits Both Baby and Mother
< Dec. 23, 2009 > -- New information suggests that breastfeeding not only benefits babies, it can also provide benefits for the mother's heart health later in life.
In a study of nearly 300 women, researchers found that those who had not breastfed were much more likely to have calcification or plaque in their coronary arteries, aorta, and carotid arteries. When calcifications and plaque build up in the arteries, blood flow can be reduced, and, if enough of these deposits build up, they can cause a heart attack or stroke.
The study results will be published in the January issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Dr. Eleanor Schwarz, an assistant professor of medicine, epidemiology, obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Health Care, says, "Women who had not breastfed were more likely to develop changes that might lead to symptomatic heart disease."
Dr. Schwarz and her colleagues had previously looked at breastfeeding's effect on older women, and that study found that postmenopausal women who had breastfed were less likely to report having heart disease. Another study on breastfeeding from a different research group recently reported in the journal Diabetes that women who breastfed were less likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a clustering of risk factors that indicate an increased risk for heart disease.
The current study included 297 women who had had at least one baby. At the time of the study, the study participants were 45 to 58 years old, had never been diagnosed with heart disease, and had no known symptoms of heart disease.
The researchers used two imaging techniques - electron beam tomography and ultrasound - to assess the health of the women's blood vessels.
They found that 32 percent of the women who had not breastfed had coronary artery calcification, compared with 17 percent of the breastfeeding mothers. The researchers found calcifications in 39 percent of the aortas of women who had not breastfed, versus 17 percent of the women who had. They also found plaque deposits in the carotid arteries of 18 percent of the women who had not breastfed and 10 percent of those who had.
After adjusting the data for socioeconomic status, family history and lifestyle factors, heart disease risk factors, and body mass, the researchers concluded that women who had not breastfed were five times more likely to have aortic calcifications than women who consistently breastfed.
Dr. Schwarz says the researchers suspect that the apparent benefit from breastfeeding on later heart health stems from how a woman's body stores fat and how that fat is released - or not released - after pregnancy.
"A woman's body expects to go through pregnancy and then lactation," Dr. Schwarz explains. "During pregnancy, a woman's body stores fat that it expects to release during lactation. If women don't breastfeed, then the body has to deal with excessive fat."
The bottom line is that "it's really important to try to breastfeed," she says. "If you can breastfeed for three months after each pregnancy, your blood vessels are likely to be in better shape down the road."
Dr. Schwarz adds that women who cannot breastfeed for three months ought to try for at least a little while. "Some women may feel overwhelmed by some of the long-term breastfeeding recommendations," she says. "Our study looked at three months, but if that's not possible, the longer you can stick with it, the better."
Dr. Catherine McNeal, an associate professor of medicine and a specialist in cardiovascular disease prevention at Scott & White Healthcare, says she agrees that a decrease in fat mass after pregnancy is probably the factor that is providing a heart benefit to women who breastfed.
"We used to think of fat as this inert material, but it's very bioactive," Dr. McNeal says. "It produces a plethora of bad hormones and inflammatory markers that influence blood pressure, lipids, and the risk of diabetes."
Dr. McNeal says that the study provided preliminary data "and we need to look at this area more closely, but I'm excited to see they found a positive effect of breastfeeding."
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There are many reasons why breast milk is the best milk, including the following:
Human survival depends more on brain power than on strong muscles, rapid growth (rapid maturity), or body size, so your milk is rich in the nutrients that best promote brain growth and nervous system development. Research has found that breastfed babies perform better on different kinds of intelligence tests as they grow older. They also develop better eye function. This is due mostly to certain types of fat (fatty acid chains) in human milk, which are not available in artificial formulas.
The sugar (carbohydrate) and protein in breast milk are also designed to be used easily and more completely by the human baby. Your milk is the perfect first food to help your baby achieve every aspect of ideal growth and development.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all breastfed babies receive a supplement of 400 IU per day of vitamin D beginning in the first few days of life. Your baby's physician can recommend the proper type of vitamin D supplement for your baby.
- anti-infective properties
Only human milk is alive with many different kinds of disease-fighting factors that help prevent mild to severe infections. Babies who are fully or almost-fully breastfed, or breast milk-fed babies, have significantly fewer gastrointestinal, respiratory, ear, and urinary infections. Antibodies in human milk directly protect against infection. Other anti-infective factors create an environment that is friendly to "good" bacteria, referred to as "normal flora," and unfriendly to "bad" bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Human milk also appears to have properties that help a baby's own immune system work best. If your baby does become ill when breastfeeding and receiving your milk, the infection is likely to be less severe.
- easily digested
Since nature designed human milk for human babies, your milk is the most easily digested food your baby can receive. A nutritious, yet easily digested first food is important for a baby's immature digestive tract. Your baby uses less energy, yet breaks your milk down more completely into its basic ingredients, so the nutrients, anti-infective factors, and all the other ingredients in your milk are more available to fuel your baby's body functions and to promote your baby's growth and development.
Bio-availability is a fancy way of referring to how well the body can use the nutrients in a food. The high bio-availability of nutrients in human milk means your baby gets more benefits from the nutrients it contains - even for nutrients that appear in lower levels in breast milk when compared to artificial formulas (because your baby's body can absorb and use them most effectively). It also means your baby saves the energy that would be needed to eliminate any nutrients he/she had difficulty digesting or using.
Your milk is best suited to, and so it is more gentle on, your baby's body systems. The suitability of your milk plays a role in your milk's digestibility, and it allows your baby's body to function most efficiently while spending a lot less energy on body functions. Suitability is also thought to be one reason that breastfed babies are less likely to develop allergic-related skin conditions and asthma.
The digestibility, bio-availability, and suitability of your milk means that your baby's body is able to work less yet receive more nourishment.
Always consult your physician for more information.