Breastfeeding and its genetic aspects
Breastfeeding and its genetic aspects
Dr Suyashree Palkar of Zulekha Hospital in Dubai and Sharjah talks to Future Medicine about the importance of breast milk as it is the best nutritional source for the neonate and infant. It also provides immune protection to the newborn, preventing various diseases
By Dr SUYASHREE PALKAR
Disease prevention is critically important to an individual and public health. Breastfeeding is well known to provide immune protection to the newborn and prevent various diseases in the neonatal period.
Accepted as the best nutritional source for the neonate and infant, breast milk provides widely accepted benefits to mother and child.
Gene expression in the newborn is affected by breast milk as genes are sensitive to nutrition. Most of the genes are enhanced by breast milk and it promotes quick development of the baby’s intestine and immune system. This protects the baby against gastro-intestinal infections and against Necrotizing Enterocolitis (sloughing away of the layers of the intestine due to severe infection), which is a leading cause of death and diseases especially in premature babies. Necrotizing enterocolitis occurs as a response of the cell of the intestines due to lack of oxygen caused by the infection. The genes expressed in breast milk are involved in the cell response to oxygen deprivation.
Breast milk can be a source of antigens from mother to baby to which the immune system becomes tolerant easily thus protecting the offspring from infections and inducing tolerance to common non-dangerous compounds. The immunological memory of the mother is passed to her infant via breast milk causing immunological imprinting and programming. Antiviral, antibacterial and anti-parasitic factors are part of the infection fighters.
Hormones, growth factors and fibres are important for the baby.
Breastfeeding protects against diarrhoeal diseases, ear and chest infections in the baby.
The genes transmitted through breast milk protect the child from childhood cancers.
Delayed or impaired maturation of the immune system early in life due to lack of breastfeeding can result in immune dysfunction later in life with resultant allergies and autoimmunity (where the improperly developed immune system fails to recognise one’s own tissues and begins to attack them).
Digestive system disorders such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease can be prevented with breast milk.
In adult life, breastfeeding gives protection from Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus (adult onset type), obesity, asthma and multiple sclerosis (a degenerative disorder of the nerve tissues)
Breast milk contains several substances that can help the baby’s brain and can increase the child’s IQ over his bottle-fed peers. It prevents malocclusions of teeth and bad oral habits in the child.
Breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast cancer and the protection builds up over a period of time with increasing duration of feeding (at least 6 months of breastfeeding) and the number of children that are breast fed.
It is estimated by studies and research that the cumulative incidence of breast cancer in developed countries would be reduced by more than half, from 6.3 to 2.7 per 100 women by the age of 70, if women had the average number of births and a lifetime duration of breast feeding that had been prevalent in developing countries until recently.
Breastfeeding accounts for an almost two-third reduction of the incidence of breast cancer. This could be due to the protective effect of hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and lactation.
(The author is consultant on Foetal Medicine and Obstetric Sinologist at Zulekha Hospital, Dubai and Sharjah, UAE)
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