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Have you ever wondered why breast milk is such a perfect food for your baby? To celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, this blog will highlight some of the amazing substances found in breast milk.
Although the benefits are breastfeeding are undisputed, the UK has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in Europe. Only 34% of babies are breastfed at age six months, compared to 71% in Norway 1. Breastfed babies have a lower risk of developing asthma and respiratory infections, they have better digestive health 2 and they’re less likely to become obese in later life or to develop diabetes.
Breast milk delivers the ideal ratio of protein, fats and sugars to support your baby’s growing body. It contains substances to help their developing immune system and fight off viruses and bacteria at this vulnerable time in your baby’s life.
One class of breast milk components are called breast milk fat globules. These are droplets of fat covered in a membrane inside which are bound proteins and fats. It’s believed these fat droplets are crucial for your baby’s developing brain, but it’s likely they have other functions too.
Other special substances found in breast milk known as gangliosides are believed to play a role in brain development, too, but they also help immune cells grow and mature, especially early in life. It’s believed gangliosides help the internal lining of your baby’s intestine to develop, and so improve their ability to absorb nutrients. This can have health advantages throughout their lifetime.
One of the most amazing things about breast milk is its constituents change as your baby develops. Certain gangliosides tend to be naturally rich in breast milk very early on in your baby’s life. But because the types of gangliosides in your breast milk vary according to the ratio of different fats contained in your diet, what you eat will directly affect how well your infant can absorb nutrients as they grow older.
Breast milk contains over 200 different types of complex sugars known as oligosaccharides. They’re incredibly important because they feed the types of beneficial bacteria ideally resident in your baby’s gut microbiome. They allow these bacteria to cling to the walls of your baby’s intestines, helping their immune system to develop and preventing inflammation. Human breast milk contains its own bacteria feeding off these sugars.
The oligosaccharides in breast milk also deter bacteria and viruses by binding to pathogens and preventing them from clinging to your baby’s cells. Some may be absorbed into your baby’s bloodstream and taken around the body, meaning their antimicrobial activity is not limited to the intestines.
There’s so much science doesn’t yet know about breast milk. It contains over 1500 protein compounds, for example, and science has no idea of the function of many of these.
The complexity of breast milk means it’s difficult to develop a substitute. Not only does your breast milk change as your baby grows, but it’s different to any other women’s. Your breast milk is personally designed for your baby’s needs. What is in your breast milk is thought to be affected by your genetics, age and diet.
Science has even discovered the composition of breast milk varies depending on the time of day, helping to establish your baby’s circadian rhythm.
Many of the constituents of breast milk are significantly different to those found in cow’s milk, which after all is designed for baby cows. For example, cow’s milk is one thousand times lower in oligosaccharides. With many of the essential components missing from formula milk, too, it’s easy to see why breast milk is superior.
Your breast milk is only as healthy as you are. Along with the special substances you’ve already read about, babies need some nutrients you as an adult can make for yourself. For example, your body can chop and change different dietary fats to make most of what you need, apart from a couple which must be obtained directly from food. But scientists believe young babies can’t make some of these fats in the same way, so they need to obtain them from breast milk.
Breastmilk offers your baby unique health benefits lasting a lifetime. Any amount of breastfeeding is incredibly valuable, but don’t feel bad if you’re unable to feed your baby.
If you would like one-to-one support to maximise both your health and your baby’s, I can help. Simple tests can reveal whether you are deficient in any nutrients which may impact your breast milk. Personalised dietary, nutritional and lifestyle recommendations will then be tailored to your health goals.
Are you concerned about the health of your bowel? Why not book a free 15 minute discovery call to see if Functional Medicine is for you.
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