We have come a long way in the US, where only a couple generations ago, new mothers were not encouraged to breast feed their babies.
Although breast feeding is an obvious function for all mammals, (actually it is the function that defines the term “mammals”), humans walk the confusing path, muddied by our determination to achieve dominance over nature.
Why would there even be a debate whether breast milk is best for our babies?
Clearly we are inquisitive creates, we an insatiable need to understand the how, even if we never can understand the why.
Luckily science is just now catching up, and finally grasping the eloquence and wisdom of the natural world
With the discovery of the genome and the microbiome, the how is becoming more clear everyday, and as a result, mothers in the US we can finally stand behind the motto “breast is best” and drop the debate.
When it comes to being a mammal, mothers milk not only provides the perfect food for baby, but it provides the perfect food for the microbes that the baby hosts in the gut, therefore establishing immunity and securing baby’s survival.
Science in Motion
In the words of Bruce German, researcher at UC Davis, “Milk is the perfect source of nutrition, a superfood that is actually worthy of the title.”
The number of scientific studies & publications about breast milk is tiny compared to the number on other bodily fluid like blood, saliva and even urine.
“Medical funding agencies saw it as irrelevant”, Bruce German explains, “it doesn’t have anything to do with the diseases of middle-aged white men. And nutritionists saw it as a simple cocktail of fats and sugars that could be easily duplicated and replaced by formulas”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
With the minimal research that has been done on human breast milk it is proven to be a phenomenal elixir of microbes, prebiotic factors such as oligosaccharides, powerful antibodies, complex sugars, fats, and carbohydrates.
“Milk is a mammalian innovation. Every mammal mother, whether platypus or pangolin,
human or hippo, feeds her baby by literally dissolving her own body to make a
white fluid that she recreates through her nipples”
Building Baby’s Immunity
We were taught that the baby’s immune system is feeble in the first 6 months of life because the immune system is “immature”.
This actually is not completely correct.
There is a special class of immune cells in a newly born human that suppress the rest of the body’s defensive mechanism, to give the microbes “free range” to establish themselves.
You many ask, doesn’t this seem contrary to survival?
Without the immune system’s full ability to select and protect, how can the infant ensure it acquires the correct communities of microbes for her/his unique microbiome?
The answer is hidden within mother’s milk
Breast milk is full of antibodies which control the microbial populations. This complex elixir, which cannot be duplicated in a laboratory, can restrain and control microbes, and feed dormant microbes hidden in the babies gut, plus introduce new microbes that stimulate genetic sequencing.
In 2014, an immunologist, Dr. Charlotte Kaetzel, genetically engineered mice that could not produce just one of these many antibodies in their milk, resulting in the baby mice growing a “bizarre” microbiome, with species of microbes typically found in humans with inflammatory bowel disease.
Human breast milk has is a symphony of antibodies, each playing a unique role, and missing only one can have detrimental affect.
The Amazing HMO
With the microbiome being a medical buzz word, it has become more common knowledge that breast milk contains oligosaccharides.
Oligosaccharides are the indigestible complex sugars, that feed the microbes in the large intestine and colon of the infant.
Science has discovered that human milk has 5x the oligosaccharides as cow’s milk, and has identified over 200 different human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs).
These HMOs are the third largest ingredient in mother’s milk after lactose and fat.
We know that HMOs feed microbes, but which microbes?
Since stool samples from breast fed babies are statistically higher in levels of Bifidobacteria, scientists assumed that the oligosaccharides fed all species of Bifidobacteria.
Going on that assumption, a team of curious scientists, led by Bruce German, identified and isolated all the various HMOs, fed them to Bifidobacteria stains and to their surprise they could not grow this bacteria at all.
Finally they discovered one unique strain of Bifido, called Bifidobacterium longum infantis (B. Infantis for short), that had a unique cluster of 30 genes that devoured HMOs.
No other Bifidobacteria subspecies had this combination of genes.
This unique subspecies is not actually present in human milk, but is dormant in the colon of new born babies, waiting to be fed.
Human milk evolved to nourish this microbe and this microbe evolve to consume the human milk oligosaccharides, they co-evolved.
A beautiful symbiosis between the microbiome and its host, the human baby.
The Hidden Microbe
B. infatis is truly an amazing microbe.
It releases short chain fatty acids (SFAs) which stimulate gut cells to make adhesive proteins which seal the gut, and anti-inflammatory molecules that calibrate the immune system.
Interestingly, these mechanisms only happen when B. Infatis grows and feeds on HMOs.
When it is fed only lactose instead, it does survive but does not stimulate those functions.
B. Infatis unlocks its full potential only when it eat feeds on breast milk. Therefore, it can be said that breast milk is essential for both infant and infatis
The Defensive Decoy
Not only do HMOs stimulate the baby’s immune system within the gut microbiome, but also they create a unique defense system to protect this new budding life
Pathogens are all around us, and the main portal of entry into our bodies is through the mouth and into the digestive system.
These pathogenic microbes infiltrate the human gut by latching onto glycans, which are sugar molecules that reside on the surface of the intestinal cells.
HMOs trick the pathogens to stick to them, since they have a striking resemblance to glycans, and draw them out of the body.
They act as a decoy, blocking dangerous pathogens such as Salmonella, Vibrio cholerae (the cholera bacteria), Campylobacter jejuni (which causes bacterial diarrhea), Entamoeba histolytica (the dysentery amoeba), and various forms of E.coli.
HMOs even obstruct HIV, which explains why infants who nurse from infected mothers, do not become infected.
Unlike Any Other Milk
Not surprisingly, human breast milk is unique from other mammals.
It not only has serval hundred times the quantity of HMOs compared to oligosaccharides in cow’s milk, but also outranks the milk of chimps and other primates.
David Mills, a microbiologist, offered one explanation, which reflects on human brain development.
He explains that humans have larger brains compared to other primates, and the growth of the human brain is exponential in the first year of life.
This fast growth and development of the brain is dependent on a nutrient called silica acid, which just so happens to be a byproduct produced by B. Infatis, when this microbes consumes HMOs.
As long as the HMOs are feeding the bacteria, the bacteria is feeding the baby’s brain, making the human brain larger and more advanced.
Another fascinating discovery is that the milk of primates tested with different levels of oligosaccharides depending on their social relationships and community.
Nursing apes and monkeys who lived in larger social groups had more oligosaccharides and with greater diversity, than did the nursing primates who were solitary.
Yet another reason to encourage postpartum women to establish community.
Historically, humans lived in tribes and women were “gatherers”, not just gathering food but gathering people to raise children together, and gathering diversity of microbes & oligosaccharides.
A New Day
I feel fortunate to have had my children in a time and place where nursing was encouraged and supported.
How we feed our babies is how nature intended, and we are learning more than ever the profound impact breast feeding has on the longevity and health of our babies.
I am well awarer that nursing is not always easy, as many mamas can attest to.
It takes support from a community, from family, and even professionals such as lactation consultants.
Why do some women struggle more than others with nursing?
There are multitude of reasons, but I will mention a couple.
Over the years there has been a rise in tongue ties, as well as lip and cheek ties. This could be due to un-metabolized folic acid and other synthetic nutrients causing inflammation and genetic variables.
Luckily there are medical procedures, such as laser frenulectomy and other release techniques, followed by exercises that can resolve this issue and support baby’s latch and ability to nurse.
Many women also suffer from low milk supply, which could be due to stress, hormonal imbalance or gut health.
As a practitioner and herbalist, I recommend medicinal herbs and nutrients that support lactation and balance hormones.
These medicinal herbs are beautifully categorized as galactagogues, supporting a galaxy of microbes and invisible compounds that make breast milk the perfect food of our babies.
Of these herbs my favorite of the herbs are Shatavari (asparagus racemosus) Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and Hops (Humulus lupulus) which have been used for in traditional medicines for thousands of years.
Stress, Isolation and PPD
There is an epidemic of postpartum depression and anxiety in the US, possibly due to isolation, loss of community, or even birth trauma.
A recent study showed that women who had family and community support, were more likely to breast feed their babies
For these mothers, I strongly encourage seeking out a lactation support group, as well as a compassionate lactation consultant, therapist, and healthcare provider, to help create community, release trauma, and find balance.
The Debate is Over
Clearly there is no more need for debate, breast feeding is best for baby, AND when women have the support needed, breast feeding also benefits the mother.
We know there is a release of love hormones (Oxytocin) in a mother when she is nursing her baby, but I would not be surprised if we discover more benefits for both mama and baby in the months and years to come.
If there are other reasons a mother cannot nurse, please remember there are establish breast milk banks that can support this beautiful symbiotic relationship of the baby and her/his microbiome.