Most mothers know that breastmilk offers superior nutrition to their babies and that it can protect the baby from illness and disease. But the wonders of breastmilk stretch far beyond these already amazing properties, and scientists are continuously discovering new components of breastmilk that we didn’t know about previously. Let’s look at a few ingredients in breastmilk that you may not have known about.
Ingredients in breastmilk to help boost baby
Five types of antibodies
Antibodies are immune cells that recognise harmful organisms and other threats and act to neutralize them in various ways. There are five basic types of antibodies, and breastmilk contains them all – IgG, IgA, IgM, IgD and IgE. The most abundant type is IgA, shares Dr Jack Newman from the Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation.
The antibodies in breastmilk are extra-amazing in a few ways. They are bound to a component that protects them from the gastric acid and other digestive enzymes in the gut. They are also made by the mother’s body in response to any threats in their immediate environment, thus specifically protecting the baby from any bacteria and viruses that he has a big chance of being exposed to right now.
Another fascinating fact about the antibodies in breastmilk is that they know to ignore the good bacteria in the baby’s gut. This further supports the baby’s overall gut colonization with good bacteria.
READ MORE: How to boost your breast milk supply
Although breastmilk has fairly low levels of iron, the iron in human milk is absorbed 5 times better than iron in cows’ milk. Breastmilk also has high levels of lactose and vitamin C, which facilitate iron absorption. Breastmilk’s iron levels will only be affected by a mother’s iron intake if she suffers from severe (not moderate) anaemia.
Apart from helping the baby grow, ingredients in breastmilk contains a few proteins that play a big role in preventing illness and disease:
- Lactoferrin is an iron-binding protein found in breastmilk that absorbs excess iron in the gut that harmful bacteria thrive on. This reduces the growth of these bacteria in the gut.
- In a similar way, B-12 binding protein prevents harmful bacteria from ingesting Vitamin B12.
- Casein, one of the two main proteins in breastmilk, prevents harmful organisms from attaching to the baby’s bowel walls.
- Fibronectin is a protein that makes immune cells more aggressive so that they will ingest harmful organisms. It also minimizes inflammation and helps any damaged tissue to heal faster.
Immune cells or leukocytes
- Phagocytes engulf and absorb harmful organisms – think of the legendary arcade video game Pac-Man.
- Macrophages are cells that manufacture enzymes which destroy bacteria.
- Lymphocytes assist with antibody production and send out chemical messages which activate other components of the baby’s immune system if harmful bacteria are recognised
Bifidus factor – giving baby’s probiotics food for thought
Probiotics (or good bacteria) play a vital role in our bodies’ immune systems. Newborn babies are extremely vulnerable to infection, and one of the reasons for this is that their skins and digestive tracts are not yet colonised by these good bacteria. A newborn gets his very first introduction to good bacteria during birth, where he is exposed to the mothers’ probiotics in the vagina and anal area. The colonisation with bacteria that will occur in the early days and weeks after birth will have long-term effects on the baby’s health.
Breastfed babies develop different colonization patterns than formula-fed babies. The way that breastmilk digests provide an acidic environment in which the probiotics Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium thrive (but harmful pathogens cannot). It also contains an ingredient named ‘Bifidus factor’ which further promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria.
Leptin (a hormone we all could use!)
Although the exact mechanism is not yet fully understood, drinking breastmilk affects a gene in a baby’s body that produces a hormone called Leptin. This hormone tells a baby when he’s had enough to drinking, preventing overeating. This explains to some extent why breastfed babies drink only as much as they need, rather having smaller feeds more frequently. Although this may be a bit inconvenient at some stages, it offers long-term protection against obesity and all its perils.
This fairly recent discovery is mind-blowing. Stem cells are known to be found in umbilical cord blood and in bone marrow. These cells have the capacity to divide into any other cell in the body. Stem cells are often harvested and stored for later treatment of an ever-expanding list of diseases and conditions, including various types of cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Although the exact role of stem cells in breastmilk is still a mystery, ongoing research done at the University of Western Australia have found evidence of these cells in the blood and other organs of breastfeeding babies. It is reckoned that these cells play a role in the optimal functioning and development of these organs.
Allergens from mom’s diet
But that can’t be good, right? It can indeed. New research is showing that earlier exposure to allergens reduces the risks of allergies later. It is reckoned that a baby’s immature immune system is unable to fully respond to an allergen. Later on, when the immune system is stronger, it already recognises the allergen and it is less likely to trigger a full allergic reaction. For this reason, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology now recommends introducing allergenic foods to babies from as early as four months of age.
The wonderful fact is that babies fed with breast milk get exposure to any allergens that the mother is eating through her breastmilk. Although this is not a guarantee that a baby won’t be allergic, it helps to reduce the risk.
Oxytocin – the love hormone
Oxytocin is the most powerful endorphin (or feel-good hormone) in the body. It is called the love-hormone, as it’s made in our bodies while we’re with the people we love, for example when having a meal with family and friends. It is responsible for orgasms during sex. In breastfeeding oxytocin causes a let-down reflex.
Every time you breastfeed your baby, your body releases oxytocin and your baby gets it in the breastmilk as well. What an amazing mechanism to help mothers cope with the stress of having a new baby. It plays an important role in bonding and in preventing postnatal depression. It highlights one of breastfeeding’s most important advantages, which is the special bond it creates between mother and child.
Carbohydrates for more than just energy
- Oligosaccharides are sugars that increase acidity in the gut, which inhibits organism growth. These sugars also intercept bacteria and form harmless complexes that baby’s body can excrete.
- Glycoconjugates adhere to bacteria and viruses and eliminate them from the body.
These are only ten highlights of literally hundreds of amazing ingredients in breast milk that provides in babies needs in ways that we cannot even fully comprehend yet. For further reading on the contents of human milk, visit www.human-milk.com.