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How Breastfeeding Impacts Heart Health

Fat and Cholesterol. Two words that tend to have negative connotations. Most people spend their lives avoiding both in their diet. However, did you know that breastfed babies survive on these two essential nutrients? It’s true! It makes you wonder: would the human body secrete a harmful substance to its young? 

Nature’s perfect food

There seems to be a recurring theme regarding health: nature knows best. While manufacturers have tried to recreate breastmilk by way of formula, the contents in the can will never match what the body produces. Why is that? 

Breast milk is a living fluid containing millions of vital cells. The ingredients in breast milk are constantly changing to meet the needs of the baby. Month-to-month, day-to-day, and even during each feeding, breast milk is continuously adapting to meet the health and nutritional requirements of the infant. 

For example, when an infant first begins feeding, the breast milk is more watery, quenching the baby’s thirst. This “foremilk” has higher sugar content. However, as the baby continues to feed, the milk gradually becomes much richer in fat. “Hindmilk,” or the milk at the end of a feeding, is very rich in fat and much higher in calories. Much like having dessert, hindmilk leaves the baby full and satiated. 

Milk content changes throughout the day as well. Studies have found that breast milk has a much higher fat content in the afternoon and early evening than in the morning. One theory is that the higher evening fat content helps an infant sleep longer through the night, although you might find plenty of moms who disagree.

Similarly, breast milk composition will adapt to address the specific pathogen when an infant is sick. The baby’s saliva sends cues to the mother, eliciting an increase in immune cells in the milk. In fact, breast milk is much like nature’s free and safe vaccinations. 

What’s in breastmilk?

Breast milk is truly nature’s perfect food, containing everything a child needs to grow and develop in healthy ways. While breast milk has hundreds of known beneficial components, new health advantages continue to be discovered regularly. For example, scientists recently found that premature babies fed exclusively with breast milk could recover heart function identical to that of a full-term baby. 

Approximately 90 percent of breast milk is water. The remaining 10 percent contains carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antibodies, hormones, enzymes, white blood cells, and fat. 

Dietary lipids are the primary energy source for infants, providing up to 55 percent of the total energy in the first few months of life. Another word for fat, lipids are also essential in a newborn’s diet for eyesight, weight gain, and proper brain development. There are several types of lipids present in breast milk. 

  • Triglycerides: Responsible for storing energy, these fats make up 98 percent of breast milk. Typically, and perhaps incorrectly, associated with heart disease later in life, babies rely on this fat for healthy growth. 
  • Cholesterol: This steroid is imperative for infant brain development and hormone production. Studies show that breastfed infants have higher levels of this essential nutrient.  
  • Fatty Acids: The predominant fatty acids in breast milk are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), arachidonic acid (AA), and other long-chain fatty acids. While they make up a small percentage of fats in milk, they are an essential structural component of all tissues in the body, including blood vessels, the heart, liver, nervous tissues, and the brain. 

Breastfeed now: Reap the rewards later

The infant health advantages of breastfeeding are well known and numerous. 

  • Decreased risk of disease
  • Lower incidence of allergies
  • Reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome
  • Improved immunity
  • Strong brain development and increased IQ
  • Better digestion
  • Lower rates of hospitalization
  • Fewer cavities

While the immediate benefits of breastfeeding are apparent, there are enormous long-term ramifications. Babies who are breastfed have lower risks of disease later in life. Breastfeeding has been linked to lower rates of asthma, eczema, obesity, food allergies, diabetes, and gastrointestinal disorders, to name a few. 

Breastfeeding has innumerable benefits for the heart, including reduced blood pressure. A recent study concluded that children who were breastfed, even for a short amount of time, had reduced blood pressure when they turned three years old. 

The heart-healthy benefits of breastfeeding extend beyond childhood. Studies show that exposure to cholesterol in breast milk improves heart health as children age. Adults who were breastfed as infants have lower levels of dense low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and lower risks of heart disease. 

Good for baby and for mom

The benefits of breastfeeding are well known for the baby, but did you know that it also benefits mom? Breastfeeding is associated with lower risks of numerous maternal diseases. Breastfeeding moms can enjoy lower blood pressure, a decreased risk of diabetes, and lower rates of heart disease. The cardioprotective effects of breastfeeding clearly extend to both mom and baby.

A 2017 study found that nursing mothers have a lower risk of heart attack and stroke, even years after giving birth. The study followed close to 300,000 Chinese women with an average age of 51 for eight years.

Researchers concluded that women who breastfed had a nearly 10 percent lower risk of heart disease and an eight percent lower risk of stroke. Furthermore, the longer the women breastfeed, the lower their incidence of cardiovascular disease. 

A year later, science confirmed the maternal benefits of breastfeeding. Researchers followed 700 women with normal blood pressure during pregnancy who breastfed for at least six months. 

The study found that these women had higher levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) a decade later. They also had lower triglycerides and healthier blood vessels than those who had never breastfed. 

The mechanisms by which breastfeeding benefits moms are not entirely clear. When a mother breastfeeds her baby, the body releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding. Oxytocin relaxes blood vessels and reduces stress, both of which benefit the heart. 

Additionally, breastfeeding may help reverse some of the metabolic changes that occur during pregnancy, such as weight gain and mild insulin resistance. Finally, breastfeeding moms tend to live healthier lifestyles, which may also help reduce their disease rates. 

Does mom’s diet matter?

Mothers instinctively want to provide their babies with the absolute best. It’s our job, after all, to nurture and feed our young. A breastfeeding mother’s diet greatly influences the health of her child. The foods that mom consumes become the building blocks for breast milk. Breastfeeding provides the perfect opportunity to give children the healthiest start possible.

Science has shown that eating vegetables, protein, and fat is best for moms and babies. Following a nutrient-dense, 100 Year Heart Diet provides building blocks for rich breast milk. 

For example, studies have found that breastfeeding mothers who eat a lot of fish have children who reach developmental milestones earlier than those who have lower intakes. Coldwater fatty fish such as sardines, anchovies, herring, and salmon are all excellent sources of DHA for mom and baby. 

Steering clear of processed grains, gluten, and sugar will ensure the baby has the best start possible. More importantly, a mom’s diet should be 100 percent organic and GMO-free. Non-organic food is laced with pesticides, heavy metals, and other harmful chemicals that make their way directly to the baby through the breastmilk. 

Even if your diet is not perfect, the benefits of breastfeeding far exceed those of conventional formula. The lactating body is impressive and does a phenomenal job filtering out many unwanted toxins. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the cleaner the mom’s diet, the better the baby’s health. 

Next steps

Breastfeeding is perhaps the most original form of an ancestral diet. It’s pure, unadulterated, living, dynamic, and has been around since the start of time. So many health problems, including cardiovascular disease, could be avoided through breastfeeding. While little can be done if you were not breastfed as a baby, you can share your newfound knowledge with those you love. The truth is that the breast is always best for health.

Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well 

Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD

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