Protection More than Nutrition
Isn’t it interesting how natural things turn out to be so good for us – and what could be more natural than mother’s milk? Infant nutrition is so critical to life. No wonder many companies have worked so hard to convince us that we should buy an artificial substitute from them. There is a lot of money in it!
But it is more than nutrition. It is also protection!
Human milk’s most important role could be preventing infant disease and boosting immunity by cultivating a balance of healthy microbes in the baby’s digestive system and the rest of the body. In fact, many researchers now believe that mother’s milk originally evolved as a protective measure, not just for nutritional.
Dr. Mark Underwood, a neonatologist at U.C. Davis, has a focus is not on drugs but on diet inspired by what might be considered the ultimate super-food: human milk. But premature babies born through a C-section often receive nourishment, including liquid vitamins and a few drops of her mother’s milk, through a catheter in her umbilical cord. “We think that makes them sick,” says Dr. Underwood. Infections have drove Underwood and his colleagues to peer deeper into human milk. And their findings are poised to improve health not just for babies, but for all of us.
Food researcher, Dr. Bruce German from UC Davis, says, “Milk is powerful as a preventer of disease and an enhancer of performance. By understanding how it does what it does, we can bring the principles, the mechanisms of action, and the benefits to everyone.”
Follow the Money Trail
Most infants in the developed world can now survive without mother’s milk. Doctors and scientists long assumed most of its value was nutritional. This means it could be replaced by commercial infant formulas. This is now a $3.5 billion-a-year business in the United States alone! Bruce German says, “People should not underestimate how important the money is”.
Dr. Berman asked, “What is the one food that’s clearly meant to help humans? Milk!” Breast-feeding boosts an infant’s immune system and promotes a healthy gut. Milk can “grab onto pathogens,” flushing them out of the baby, and even act as an anti-inflammatory.
There is one class of sugar molecules among the most common solid components of milk called, “oligosaccharides”. These, are not digestible – so what are they doing in mother’s milk? It turns out that these sugars are not feeding the baby, they are feeding the microbes that boost our health! Through much research, Dr. German and his colleagues eventually identified dozens of new sugars that could be keys to human health and disease.
Microbiologist David Mills discovered that good microbes efficiently eat these sugars, starving out bad bugs and aiding the infant that serves as its host.
Disease and Illnesses Protection
Other breast-milk oligosaccharides are reducing the mortality rate from necrotizing enterocolitis from 25 percent to only 5 percent. Nutritional scientist Lars Bode believes the compound may act by encouraging the growth of beneficial bacteria or by reducing inflammation of the gut.
Bode’s lab has shown that these sugars, because they are indigestible, journey into the colon. When the parasite tries to hook onto the intestinal wall, it latches onto the milk decoy instead. The milk molecules then most likely flush the parasite out. Bode’s finding could have big implications for both child and adult health, because E. histolytica is the world’s third-leading cause of death by parasites!
Bode points to human-milk oligosaccharides performing other heroic medical feats. They inhibit Streptococcus pneumoniae, the bacterium frequently responsible for respiratory and ear infections. (This may explain why breast-fed infants get fewer respiratory illnesses than formula-fed ones.)
At Boston College, biochemist David Newburg and his colleagues have found that another oligosaccharide is effective at warding off Campylobacter, cholera, and enteropathogenic E. coli—a frequent cause of diarrhea. Newburg and his collaborators are also studying a human-milk fat that seems to inhibit HIB from infecting human cells, and yet another milk component that prevents hiv from disabling the host’s immune cells.
The Real Thing
The big infant formula producers are closely watching these promising breast milk studies. They will probably try to imitate the protective value of mother’s milk. But, if at all possible, why not have the real thing? To my way of thinking, it would be better to find improved ways of preserving natural mother’s milk for better practical use than try to imitate it.
Breast-feeding boosts an infant’s immune system and promotes a healthy gut. Scientists are finally isolating the compounds responsible. The result could be a health breakthrough for all ages.