As if we didn’t already know how valuable breast milk is, researchers have discovered a team of immune cells in breast milk that are ready to conquer potential pathogens.
There is a plethora of research on the benefits of breast milk, including its ability to build baby’s brain. In fact, research suggests that the first six months of a baby’s life are incredibly critical to her brain’s development. The brain grows nearly twice as big in mass in the first six months and research has found that toddlers and preschoolers who had been breastfed exclusively for as little as three months had as much as 20-30% more white matter in their brains than when compared to those who did not have breast milk as babies. The white matter is pivotal for neural connections and growth, as it connects the different parts of the brain and transmits signals back and forth. This is where synaptic responses happen and dendrites (which aid learning) grow.
And, another study looked at 16-year-olds who had been breastfed for at least six months or more as babies and found that they were more likely to get better grades on school exams. Another study found that people who’d been breastfed for at least a year were more likely to earn more money by the time they were 30. Researchers even believe there is a case to be made for the intelligence quotients of breastfed babies being higher than those of formula-fed babies, and this could be related to the high numbers of long-chain fatty acids like DHA that breast milk has.
But, there’s more to mother’s milk than just building strong baby brains. Researchers also know that mother’s milk has been found to contain millions of cells, many of which aid immunity.
To add to the evidence, researchers from Augusta University have detected the presence of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells, or ILCs, in human breast milk. Their findings, which were based on extensive cell analysis of milk from four lactating women, were published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Innate lymphoid cells are the most recently discovered group of immune cells. Found to influence immunity, inflammation, and tissue homeostasis, these essential cells have only been studied for the past ten years. For the first time, ILCs have been found in breast milk.
According to Science Daily, ILCs do not attack pathogens directly. Instead, they send cytokines to direct the most abundant immune cell, macrophages, to do that job. These “big eaters” are the largest of the white blood cells and literally envelop unwanted bacteria, pathogens, and dead body tissue.
Three types of ILCs have been found in breastmilk. The most prevalent, type 1, are transferred to the baby via breastmilk and survive in the infant’s gut for at least several days.
As far as researchers can tell, the ILCs in breast milk may protect babies from infection in the short term, as well as help them to develop their own protective immune system over time. More, the ILCs might also protect the mother from getting an infection from the baby. There is speculation that the ILCs are responsible for the dynamic that allows breast milk to change and adapt as a baby fights off an infection.
In searching for the source for which could provide immune protection to the baby, the ILCs were found. “We think these cells help provide frontline immune protection for the baby,” says Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, chief of the Section of Neonatology and vice-chair of clinical research in the MCG Department of Pediatrics.
And while we understand that there are many reasons mamas may not be able to give their babies breastmilk, and our goal is never to make them feel less than mothers if they can’t, we’d be remiss if we didn’t continue to share research and evidence-based protocols for health and immunity that are so breast-milk centric. We agree with most lactation consultants that ‘fed,’ is best, and we know far too many amazing and caring mamas who feel shamed and guilt because they are not able to nurse their babies. That is never our intention, and we hope that they look into options from milk banks or mom’s groups where we come together and share our resources.
But we are thankful more research continues to bring the truth about breast milk and its power for the body back into the front and center of feeding our babies.