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Mother´s milk is the most appropriate nutrition for newborn babies and young infants. New data show that breast milk plays a critical role in the metabolism and the immune system of the baby, especially by providing beneficial bacteria to the newborn´s immature gut. However, not all breast milks are the same. The composition and quality of breast milk depend heavily on maternal diet and lifestyle.
Mother´s nutrition can influence not only the nutritional and immunological value of breast milk, but also the types of bacterial strains present in it.
Scientists believe that breast milk contains hundreds of unique bioactive substances, which protect against infection and inflammation, program maturation of the immune system and help the development of the baby´s organs. A great example is lactoferrin, an important protein found in human (and mammalian) breast milk, which is currently being investigated as a novel antimicrobial agent. Initial research shows that lactoferrin could be the answer to prevention of hospital infections in neonatal intensive care units and diarrhea in children. Human milk also contains a unique class of sugars, known as type I oligosaccharides. Despite the fact that the baby does not have the enzymes to break them down, these undigested sugars eventually feed the first beneficial bacteria of the infant’s gut (mainly Bifidobacteria). There is no doubt that breastfeeding provides the newborn with both superior nutrition and protection.
The composition of breast milk depends on many factors. Its composition changes constantly throughout the lactation period and is inevitably different between mothers. It is known that the overall concentration of protein and immune factors declines naturally during lactation. This could be an indication that the immune and digestive system of the baby are mature enough to gradually transition to solids and go on with the (nutritional) support of the mother.
Healthy fats in breast milk
Maternal diet is a major factor that affects the concentration of many important nutritional molecules in breast milk. There is substantial research evidence showing that presence of essential fatty acids (omega 3) in breast milk depends on the maternal dietary intake. A study published in The Journal of Nutrition, in 2012, investigated the effects of fish oil supplementation or salmon consumption during and after pregnancy. The results show that when the mother takes in adequate amounts of omega 3s (supplements or eating salmon) during pregnancy and breastfeeding, the breast milk is naturally enriched in omega 3s too, which is great news for the baby.
Although no research has been done specifically for young infants, it is known that sufficient consumption of omega 3s in adults have a dramatically healing and protective effect in cases of cardiovascular disease, cancer and can even protect the DNA from oxidative damage! We also know that lipids from the diet are integrated in the brain cells and affect cognitive functions. It seems to me that breast milk with omega 3s is a pretty good idea for a newborn.
But it’s not just omega 3s. Another study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, in 2012 confirms that apart from high levels of beneficial fats, the milk from mothers living in areas with higher fish consumption (coastal and river/lake regions) has higher levels of immune-related molecules that can protect the baby from infections [soluble CD14 (sCD14), transforming growth factor (TGF)-β1 and secretory IgA (sIgA)].
Beneficial bacteria in breast milk
By nature, breast milk contains numerous bacterial strains, which colonize the infant’s gut. But the type of bacteria in breast milk seem to be directly related to the mother’s lifestyle, as it is indicated by her weight and Body Mass Index (BMI). An interesting study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in 2010 has shown that maternal BMI influences the relative presence of beneficial bacteria in breast milk, which is subsequently reflected in the baby’s gut microbes. The study found that milk from overweight mothers had consistently lower numbers of beneficial bacteria (Bifidobacteria) and higher numbers of potentially pathogenic bacterial strains.
During the first 6 months of their life, the gut of babies from overweight mothers (pre-pregnancy BMI bigger than 25) already contains many potential pathogenic bacteria, such as Staphylococcus, Clostridium, Bacteroides and Akkermansia muciniphila. Several studies have found that breast milk from overweight mothers also has different composition in important immune factors, [TGF-β2, sCD14, interleukin – 6], which certainly leaves the baby more exposed to infections. It is well known that in adults, the presence of certain types of bacteria in the gut is associated with obesity and several chronic diseases. So, knowing that that mother’s weight and lifestyle affect the quality of breast milk and the baby’s gut flora so much, it is time to start paying attention to the diet of the mother during and after pregnancy. It could really affect the health of the future generation.
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