New Study Suggests Breastfeeding May Reduce Your Risk of Multiple Sclerosis

There could be yet another health benefit from breastfeeding. But there's a caveat, and it's one that might stop plenty of moms from getting this effect.

Breastfeeding and MS Africa Studio/Shutterstock
There's no doubt about it: Breastfeeding offers up some amazing benefits—and not just for your baby. The maternal advantages of breastfeeding are well-documented, and now another benefit joins the list of ways in which the act may approve your overall health down the road.

According to a new study published in Neurology, breastfeeding may bring down a woman's risk of developing multiple sclerosis. The researchers based this finding on the observation 397 women who had been recently diagnosed with MS and 433 healthy women. The researchers learned more about their pregnancies, contraceptive use and breastfeeding histories via a series of questionnaires.

Here's what they found: Women who breastfed for a cumulative 15 months or more appeared to be 53 percent less likely to develop MS as compared to women who did not breastfeed or only nursed for up to four months. According to their findings, 85 of the healthy women breastfed for 15 months or more, while 110 nursed for zero to four months. On the other hand, 44 of the women with MS breastfed for over 15 months, while 118 breastfed for less than four months.

Breastfeeding wasn't the only factor to skew MS risk: Women who got their periods after age 15 also appeared to be less likely to develop MS than those who menstruated before age 11. 

But here's where things get complicated: The women surveyed were asked to self-report, and since they may have breastfed years ago, their responses may not have been totally accurate. There's also the fact that this study was based on association, so it doesn't necessarily prove cause-and-effect. Also worth noting? Moms may need to breastfeed for 15 months to reap this benefit, and that's not a realistic situation for every mom—for example, it may be doable for women who have multiple kids, as the study looked at a total number of months spent breastfeeding, but moms of only children may find it more difficult to nurse for 15 months.

Still, the researchers believe there may be a link at work here. "Many experts have suggested that the levels of sex hormones are responsible for these findings, but we hypothesized that the lack of ovulation may play a role, so we wanted to see if having a longer time of breastfeeding or fewer total years when a woman is ovulating could be associated with the risk of MS," researcher Annette Langer-Gould, MD, PhD, said, according to a release for the news. "This study provides more evidence that women who are able to breastfeed their infants should be supported in doing so. Among the many other benefits to the mother and the baby, breastfeeding may reduce the mother's future risk of developing MS."