Does Breastfeeding Provide Long-Term Health Benefits?

>> Thursday, October 20, 2011

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We are seeing a real push these days to bring awareness to new moms about the benefits of breastfeeding newborns. Benefits such as decreased otitis media (inner ear infections), gastrointestinal illnesses, pneumonia, childhood and adult obesity, type 2 diabetes and leukemia. But there has been less emphasis on the benefits to the mother. So, are there any?

One question that we have not known the answer to until recently is: "Does lactation provide long-term health benefits against metabolic disease?" And studies over the past 5 years have found that yes, it does.

Infant feeding has been shown to be one of the major modifiable risk factors for health outcomes in women. Women who do not breastfeed face an increased risk of ovarian cancer and premenopausal breast cancer. The link between not breastfeeding and maternal malignancy has been recognized for many years. But studies done recently have also shown that not breastfeeding can lead to an increase in diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Wow!

The studies looked at were the WHI (Woman's Health Initiative), Nurse's health studies and Shanghai Women's Health Study. In the U.S. and China there is documented association between duration of breastfeeding (2-3 years at least in total time) and type 2 diabetes. There was a 1.4-1.7 increase in incidence 15 years after the birth of the last child in women who never breastfed.

The same was seen with hypertension where they found a 1.1 fold increased risk for women who had never breastfed compared with women who had breastfed at least 13-23 months over a lifetime.

It seems that breastfeeding 13-23 months is the target range for women (not necessarily in sequence, but in combination and added together with all pregnancies). In pregnancy it is important that our triglycerides are elevated to give ready access of fats to the fetus and to the infant through breast milk with lactation. In non-lactating moms the cholesterol and triglycerides take longer to return to normal. Surprisingly, it was found that it only took 3 months of breastfeeding to have a profound improvement in the cholesterol & lipid profile over a lifetime.

Additionally, they also found a 1.3 fold increased risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease in the Nurse's Health Study. A lot of these findings are linked back to "Metabolic Syndrome" (found in women that are perimenopausal and never breastfed) which shows increase in abdominal obesity, increased fasting insulin and glucose and, again, 1.2 fold increased risk of hypertension.

All these studies were age and lifestyle adjusted for many factors as to be as accurate as possible.

So what does breastfeeding offer to create all these benefits? Well it is thought that after birth the action of lactating requires that the mother meet the infant’s nutritional needs which causes the maternal metabolism to reset. Also, the release of oxytocin for milk production helps decrease the stress hormone cortisol which can prevent later storage of belly fat & risk of metabolic syndrome.

Of course biochemically it is much more complicated than this. But how wonderful to know that breastfeeding is helping moms to better health as well as their babies.

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