Step out to give your breast milk more power
If you’re a new mom who breastfeeds and also exercises regularly, you may be helping your baby avoid serious disease later in life.
Researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine found exercise raises the level of a substance in breast milk called 3SL, a carbohydrate. They postulate that 3SL conveys a long-term protection against chronic disease. Previous studies have shown that the children of mothers who exercise during pregnancy are less likely to develop diabetes, cancer or heart disease. The OSU study suggests 3SL is why this is so.
The study, published June 29, 2020 in Nature Metabolism, tracked the number of steps of about 150 women during and shortly after pregnancy and found those who took more steps produced higher levels of 3SL in their milk. Higher levels were also found in the milk of active lab mice.
By feeding milk from active mice to pups of sedentary mice, researchers showed the resulting benefits to the sedentary mice’s offspring came from the milk, and not from any inherited genetics. Furthermore, giving mice pups 3SL along with their mothers’ milk countered the bad effects of a high-fat diet on metabolic and heart health, leading researchers to theorize 3SL might become a supplement for children of mothers who cannot exercise during pregnancy or breastfeed.
The types of illnesses breast milk reportedly helps prevent in children include asthma, eczema, food allergies and gastrointestinal disorders, said Amr Daia, MD, a pediatric hospitalist at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. It’s even credited with better brain health.
“Most of these are associations,” he said, and more research is needed to substantiate some of these claims. However, there’s no denying the many benefits of breast milk, he added.
“It’s not just nutrition. There’s a lot of things in breast milk,” he said.
The very first milk produced by a mother is called colostrum, and it contains immune system agents that help protect a newborn’s intestines from germs, according to La Leche League International. Colostrum also helps flush out meconium, stool built up inside the baby during pregnancy, thereby reducing the chance of jaundice; and it can reduce the risk of low blood sugar in full-term babies.
Benefits to Baby – and Mom
The OSU study provides another reason for mothers to exercise and breastfeed, Dr. Daia said. He urged women who are considering getting pregnant or who are newly pregnant to learn about creating a healthy exercise program for themselves. He emphasized the study found moderate exercise – walking – was enough activity to boost levels of 3SL.
Exercise before and during pregnancy is recommended to help prevent excessive weight gain, gestational diabetes and high blood pressure problems, preterm birth, low infant birth weight and the need for cesarean delivery, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Dr. Daia said the benefits of breastfeeding to both the mother and child are so significant that a baby is immediately placed on the mother’s chest to nurse soon after birth. Nursing stimulates production of a hormone known as oxytocin, which reduces bleeding after birth by shrinking the uterus and associated blood vessels. In the long term, breastfeeding benefits a mother by lowering her chances of developing breast, ovarian and endometrial cancer, as well as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, he said.
The importance of breast milk is why mothers pump milk for their infants in intensive care units, or donor milk is used, Dr. Daia said. If mothers can breastfeed, they should do so, he said.
“It’s cost-efficient; very convenient,” he said.
The OSU study included researchers from the University of California – San Diego, Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center and the Joslin Diabetes Center. It was led by Kristin Stanford, associate professor of physiology and cell biology at OSU.
“We’ve done studies in the past that have shown that maternal exercise improves the health of offspring, but in this study, we wanted to begin to answer the question of why,” Stanford said in a press release. “Because there is evidence that breast milk plays a major role, we wanted to isolate the effects of breast milk on offspring health.”