We already know that breast milk has many benefits for babies, but new research shows human milk can actually help fight infections and heal wounds.
We already know that breast milk has many benefits for babies, including helping to develop their immune system. And now, researchers have found even more evidence of its super powers. A new study published in the journal Mucosal Immunology discovered a "reservoir" of bio-molecules in human milk that heal infection and wounds, reduce pain and calm inflammation.
Scientists at Brigham and Women's Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, used special techniques to detect healing molecules in human milk. "These molecules are able to help resolve inflammation and infection," author Hildur Arnardottir, Ph.D., who conducted the research while a post-doctoral fellow in BWH's Serhan lab, tells Fit Pregnancy. "We've identified some of these bio-molecules in other human organs and tissues, but this is the first time we have seen almost all of them in one place."
What this means is that breast milk is even more complex—and powerful—than previously thought. Because of its healing properties, "breastfeeding may be a way for the mother to pass along these bio-molecules that could help the infant's immune system mature," Arnardottir says, especially since the researchers did not find these healing molicules in cow's milk or formula.
While this doesn't necessarily mean that breastfed babies are healthier than formula-fed babies, "there is emerging evidence that breastfeeding is correlated with lower incidence of inflammatory conditions in early life, and potentially later life, compared to non-breastfed infants," Arnardottir says. She speculates, based on her findings, that thismay be attributed to the healing properties of human milk.
Interestingly, the study also saw lower levels of healing molecules in breast milk from women who had mastitis, a common but painful breast infection, but the reasons why aren't clear. "Whether it is due to altered production [because of the infection], or if lower...levels [of healing molecules] in the milk predisposed the mothers to infection, is yet to be determined," Arnardottir says. "But more importantly, we found that the mastitis milk had lost the pro-resolving properties seen in the healthy milk."
More uses for breast milk on the horizon
This new evidence of breast milk's health properties raises the question of whether it could ever be used to cure ailments in adults as well. "That needs to be addressed systematically in future studies," Arnardottir says, noting that "whether human milk, or just certain components, is relevant as healing tool for adult population remains of interest. Also, one has to consider that human milk contains many other bioactive factors, including cells and antibodies." So it's possible that breast milk could be used for wider purposes in the future.
There is no right or wrong way to feed your baby, and there are many factors that go into the decision of whether or not to breastfeed. This study, though, is one more thing to consider, and does seem to lend support to the notion of nursing when possible. "These findings further reinforce the importance of breastfeeding for infants," Arnardottir says.
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