When we think of the benefits of breastfeeding, we usually think of how it keeps our babies healthy. And it does! Breastmilk offers excellent, balanced nutrition along with protection from illness. It contributes to healthy gut bacteria, and even protects our kids from health conditions like obesity and cancer long after they’ve weaned.
But did you know that breastfeeding is healthy for moms, too? In addition to helping moms heal in the postpartum period (shrinking the uterus back to its original size and flooding moms with oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone), breastfeeding also provides long-term health benefits for women.
Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce rates of breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease, among others. Awesome. And now you can add one more item to the list. A new study has found that breastfeeding can reduce a mother’s chances of getting liver disease.
The study, just published in the Journal of Hepatology, concluded that breastfeeding for 6 or more months significantly reduced a mother’s risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFDL), a disease often linked to obesity.
This was a large scale study, where researchers followed moms for a whopping 25 years after they had their babies. Of the 844 women who were monitored, 32% breastfed for up to a month, 25% breastfed for 1-6 months, and 43% breastfed 6 or more months.
The moms were 49 years old when they were assessed for the last time. At that point, researchers report that about 6% of them had developed NAFDL. But what stood out was that moms who had breastfed for 6 months or more were 52% less likely to get NAFDL than moms who had nursed for a shorter time period.
Pretty damn cool, huh?
“This new analysis contributes to the growing body of evidence showing that breastfeeding a child also offers significant health benefits to the mother,” Dr. Veeral Ajmera, of the University of California and leader of the study, tells Reuters.
There was one caveat to all this that is worth mentioning. The researchers say that their study can’t prove definitively if it was the breastfeeding that decreased these mom’s rates of liver disease. There’s also a chance that the mothers who breastfed for longer were more likely to lead healthy lifestyles – like incorporating regular exercise into their day, which also helps reduce your chances of NAFDL.
Still, even if other factors were part of the picture, Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter of Cooper Medical School tells Reuters that breastfeeding can’t be discounted here, and truly can have an impact on a mother’s long-term health.
“Maintaining lactation through at least the first six months is physiologically how the mother’s body reprograms metabolism and prevents chronic diseases,” Feldman-Winter said. “While obesity and diet also modify this risk, the effect of lactation seems to be greatest and offers the best potential to decrease the prevalence of fatty liver disease.”
Of course, it is always worth pointing out that if a mother can’t breastfeed or chooses not to, there are still so many wonderful and impactful things she can do for her own wellbeing and that of her children. Breastfeeding is amazing and should be encouraged whenever possible, but it’s not the only way to stay healthy.
That said, anyone who tells you that the health benefits of breastfeeding are minimal or overblown can just zip it already. And next time anyone tells you that you should wean your baby earlier than you want to, you can go ahead and tell them that nursing for as long as possible is beneficial for everyone involved.
So go get it, breastfeeding mamas. Breastfeeding isn’t always easy, but you are doing an incredible job. And while the days and nights are long, you are making a great investment in the future health of your baby and yourself.