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Mother’s Milk – More than Nutrition – Medicine

Just as we are starting to learn about why real food is more than simple nutrition – so we are starting to see breast milk as being more than a meal too. It also sets the baby’s immune system and gut flora and may do many other things too.

“When we come out of the womb, we make our way to the breast. We enter the world knowing we’re mammals, with milk on our minds.

But even as grown-ups, we have never known exactly what’s in that milk—or, as strange as it may sound, what the point of it is. For decades, milk was thought of strictly in terms of nutrients, which makes sense—milk is how a mother feeds her baby, after all. But providing nutrients turns out to be only part of what milk does. And it might not even be the most important part.

“Mother’s milk is food; mother’s milk is medicine; and mother’s milk is signal,” says Katie Hinde, an assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard. (She also writes the fascinating blogMammals Suck, which I suspect is the only place on the Internet where you can fill out a Mammal Madness bracket.) “When people find out I study milk, they automatically think we already know about it, or it’s not important. And I’m like, ‘No, we don’t know about it, and it’s super important.’”

But first, a disclaimer—because conversations about lactation always seem to require disclaimers, especially if you happen to be someone who will never ever lactate. (I’m pretty sure.) In my new bookBaby Meets World, I write about how, contrary to myth, not nursing has never been a death sentence. Hundreds of years before halfway-decent formula, infants were fed gruesome substitutes for breast milk (mushed bread and beer, say)—and although many more died than those who were nursed, many also survived. So the lesson of the new science of milk isn’t that formula is some sort of modern evil. (It isn’t modern or evil.) It’s that milk is really complicated—and evolutionarily amazing.

Here’s how complicated: Some human milk oligosaccharides—simple sugar carbohydrates—were recently discovered to be indigestible by infants. When my son was nursing, those oligosaccharides weren’t meant for him. They were meant for bacteria in his gut, which thought they were delicious. My wife was, in a sense, nursing another species altogether, a species that had been evolutionarily selected to protect her child. (A relationship immortalized in the paper titled “Human Milk Oligosaccharides: Every Baby Needs a Sugar Mama.”) In effect, as Hinde and UC-Davis chemist Bruce German have written, “mothers are not just eating for two, they are actually eating for 2 × 1011 (their own intestinal microbiome as well as their infant’s)!” That’s what’s meant by milk serving as medicine, and that’s only scratching the surface.

But Hinde primarily studies the food and the signal elements of milk. “The signal is in the form of hormones that are exerting physiological effects in the infant,” she explains. “Infants have their own internal hormones, but they’re also getting hormones from their mother. They’re binding to receptors in the babies, and we’re just starting to understand what those effects are.”

More here

We think of milk as a static commodity, maybe because the milk we buy in the grocery store always looks the same. But scientists now believe that milk varies tremendously. It varies from mother to mother, and it varies within the milk of the same mother. That’s partly because the infants themselves can affect what’s in the milk. “Milk is this phenomenally difficult thing to study because mothers are not passive producers and babies are not passive consumers,” Hinde says. Instead, the composition of milk is a constant negotiation, subject to tiny variables.

For example, she notes, in humans skin-to-skin contact appears to trigger signals that are sent through the milk. “If the infant is showing signs of infection, somehow that’s being signaled back to the mother and she up-regulates the immune factors that are in her milk. Now is that her body’s responding to a need of the baby? Maybe. Is it that she also has a low-grade infection that she’s just not symptomatic for and so her body’s doing that? Maybe. Is it partially both? Maybe. We don’t know. It’s brand-new stuff.”

The new awareness of this sort of signaling is why there’s been a paradigm shift in the study of milk. Scientists have gone from seeing it only as food to seeing it far more expansively—as a highly sensitive variable that plays a wide range of developmental roles.

This new perspective should change how we look at formula, too, Hinde says. Instead of comparing breast milk and formula, we should accept how little we actually know about breast milk. “We need to go back to square one and look at all the variation in breast milk and where it’s coming from and what it does,” she says. “Because how could we possibly know what the difference between breast milk and formula is if we aren’t even keeping track of what the variation in breast milk is doing? And so the more that we understand about what is in milk, and what predicts how it varies, the more opportunity there is for formula to better emulate what breast milk is.”

Almost 150 years after the first infant formula, the splendidly named Liebig’s Soluble Food for Babies, was proclaimed to be “virtually identical” to human milk, we now know how much we don’t know about milk. It’s a deeply intimate mystery. And the scientists who study it are a lot like almost any parent gazing down at their sucking child: They too are full of wonder.

Nicholas Day’s book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, will be published in April. His website is nicholasday.net.

 

Your baby’s gut health – the platform for good or poor lifetime health – what to know and to do about this

It is clear now that a child’s gut flora drives many allergies – including eczema – Here is a short and illuminating article on this that joins the growing literature on the importance of gut health generally and how, in infants, gut health drives lifetime health.

This is yet one more study that highlights the importance — and complexity — of gut bacterial composition and development in early life. As we say, optimal digestive health is the foundation upon which total body health is built.

They key finding here is that prolonged breast feeding – well into 18 months – helps set up the ideal gut flora. But this is hard to do in today’s culture. The consequences of limited breast feeding are poor though. Maybe as we get to know more, it will be more acceptable. In the interim the author suggest this workaround.

It has been known for more than 30 years that children who continue at least partial breast feedings until age 3 have lower incidences of most all infectious diseases as well as asthma, allergies, and eczema. Since that is not likely to happen with the Western lifestyle, starting an infant on probiotics, fish oil, and vitamin D may help prevent this microbial shift, but I still think food and stress are primary shifters of the microbiome.

Much more here

How you were born will affect your gut flora and so your health

It is becoming more and more clear that our gut flora is the central issue for health. (More here on that)

It is best to start with the the healthiest gut flora possible. This means that it is best that we are born vaginally. We are a blank slate in the womb. Being born vaginally gives us our mother’s flora.

Evidence is now coming out about how important this is. Leaving mothers with a more informed choice. If you can have a vaginal birth, you are giving your child the best start possible.

Here is the summary:

The researchers found that infants born by cesarean delivery were lacking a specific group of bacteria found in infants delivered vaginally, even if they were breastfed. Infants strictly formula-fed, compared with babies that were exclusively or partially breastfed, also had significant differences in their gut bacteria.

“We want parents (and physicians) to realize that their decisions regarding c-section and breastfeeding can impact their infant’s gut microbiome, and this can have potentially lifelong effects on the child’s health,” says postdoctoral student and first author Meghan Azad, University of Alberta.

“The potential long-term consequences of decisions regarding mode of delivery and infant diet are not to be underestimated,” write the authors. “Infants born by cesarean delivery are at increased risk of asthma, obesity and type 1 diabetes, whereas breastfeeding is variably protective against these and other disorders.”

Beginning before birth, CHILD collects a range of information on environmental exposures such as pets, air pollution, household cleaning products, maternal and infant diet and more, and child health outcomes (including biological samples and clinical assessments). The researchers will use this information to study the development of the gut microbiome and its relationship to conditions such as wheeze and allergies in future studies.

“Children born by cesarean delivery or fed with formula may be at increased risk of a variety of conditions later in life; both processes alter the gut microbiota in healthy infants, which could be the mechanism for the increased risk,” writes Dr. Rob Knight, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist and an Associate Professor with the BioFrontiers Institute and Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Computer Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, United States, in a related commentary.

“These issues are of direct relevance to pregnant women and health practitioners and should be considered when choices such as elective cesarean delivery and other interventions are discussed,” state the commentary authors.

 

Are we helping our kids by over controlling them?

When I was a boy in the 1950’s, I was pushed out the door to play all day with the other kids in the neighbourhood. There was no TV either. We played as kids have done for millions of years. But that is not what happens now is it?

Here is Peter Gray talking about what our Hunter Gatherer ancestors did instead of programming their kids. This ties into the work of the late Jean Liedloff.

Peter Gray, PhD-The Role of Play in the Development of Social and Emotional Competence: Hunter-Gatherers, 1950s America and Now from Ancestral Health Society on Vimeo.

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