How Breastmilk Could Protect Against Food Allergies

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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It’s undeniable that women’s bodies are freaking amazing. We have the ability to make babies, birth them, and then nourish them with our bodies. And even if we can’t or choose not to partake in any or all of those endeavors, we are all badasses. Period.

The fact that our bodies have the ability to produce a healthy diet for our babies after they exit the womb never ceases to amaze me. Breastmilk – if a parent is willing and able to breastfeed – can fully sustain a baby for many months, and then continue to supply nutrition even after the baby’s diet is supplemented with other foods. Truly incredible.

And because breastmilk is what they call a “living tissue,” it’s actually much more than simply a well-balanced meal for babies. There are substances in breastmilk that protect our babies from viruses, diseases, and other pathogens. And not just when they are babies – these benefits can last a lifetime. (It should be noted that even small amounts of breastmilk can offer these sorts of protections, so if you only nurse briefly, or have a partial supply, you should know that you are offering your baby immense benefits as well.)

Scientists are constantly making new discoveries about the different components of breastmilk and how they benefit babies. And now there’s a pretty remarkable one to add to the list. According to a just released study published in the medical journal Allergy, there’s a substance in breastmilk that protects babies against developing allergies.

NICE, huh?

The substance is called HMO (human milk oligosaccharides), and is a complex sugar only found in breastmilk. As Science Daily explains it, HMO’s are “the third most abundant solid component in human milk after lactose (a different type of sugar) and fat.” It turns out HMO’s aren’t actually digested by babies, though. They act like prebiotics, and help form the baby’s gut, which “previous research suggests is a key influencer of allergic disease,” explains Science Daily.

Because past research has shown a connection between breastfeeding and reduced allergy rates, researchers decided to find out if and how these fancy HMO sugars might influence things. Scientists from the UC San Diego School of Medicine and the University of Manitoba led the study, which analyzed milk samples and data from 421 mothers.

Samples of these mom’s milk were taken at the 3- and 4-month marks. When their babies were a year old, these babies were given allergy “prick tests” to test for common allergies, including food allergies.

“A positive test is not necessarily proof of an allergy, but does indicate a heightened sensitivity,” explained Meghan Azad, PhD, from the University of Manitoba. “Sensitizations during infancy don’t always persist into later childhood, but they are important clinical indicators and strong predictors of future allergic disease.”

So what were the results of all this analyzing (and, errrr, poking and prodding)? Well, 14% of the babies tested positive for allergies. But what the researchers found was that certain mothers seemed to have a more beneficial “HMO profile” than others, and that these mom’s babies were less likely to develop food allergies.

“Our research has identified a ‘beneficial’ HMO profile that was associated with a lower rate of food sensitization in children at one year,” said Lars Bode, PhD, from UC San Diego School of Medicine. “To our knowledge, this is the largest study to examine the association of HMOs and allergy development in infants, and the first to evaluate overall HMO profiles.”

Okay, so what would determine one’s “HMO profile” and why does it seem to vary somewhat between mothers? “Composition of HMOs in breast milk is variable and determined by factors like lactation stage, gestational age, maternal health, ethnicity, geographic location and breastfeeding exclusivity,” explains Science Daily.

Whew. So what does this all mean to common folks like you and me? In a nutshell, there are some amazing sugars in breastmilk called HMO’s that protect babies against allergies. And basically — even the doctors admit this — we need to learn a whole lot more about how, why, and what can be done to maximize the benefits of these amazing substances for all babies.

Science Daily explains that there is definitely a need for more research here to further understand how HMO’s benefit babies, as well as the “long-term consequences of HMO composition on confirmed allergic disease in later childhood.” Additionally, scientists are looking into ways that HMO’s can be modified to be used therapeutically (i.e., not just for babies who ingest them via breastmilk, but potentially anyone who has an allergy).

And with the rates of allergies among kids on the rise in recent years, this would be an remarkable and necessary step. Allergies can be serious and even deadly, and so any step in the direction of protecting our kids from them should be applauded.

So thank you scientists for being on the forefront of this, and finding awesome new ways to protect our kiddos. And women, kudos for being the awe-inspiring, life-giving goddesses that you all are. Go breastmilk!

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