Inflammation is one of the main ways in which the body heals itself. When inflammation is employed in the short term, it comes and goes when needed, and is resolved in due time. When you get a cut or bruise, or when your body fights a cold, you usually feel worse for a short while before you feel better—that’s inflammation at its best. Acute inflammation is an important part of the body’s function. It becomes a problem when the inflammation is chronic. Chronic inflammation contributes to most, if not all, chronic disease, and it can be triggered by a wide range of factors.
In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal B Society journal, researchers found that low birth weight and insufficient or no breastfeeding increases the risk of inflammation later in life.1 To measure inflammation, blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a well-known marker of systemic inflammation, were measured in over 15,000 adults aged 24 to 32 years old. Those infants who weighed more than 6.18 pounds at birth and those who were breastfed for at least three months were less likely to have inflammation in young adulthood.
“Breastfeeding provides nutritional and immunological support to infants following delivery and has sensitive period effects on immune development and metabolic processes related to obesity—two potential avenues of influence on adult CRP production,” noted the researchers.
Although they measured CRP at one point in time, they excluded data for anyone who also exhibited symptoms of infection so that they would have a better marker of chronic vs acute inflammation.
Current breastfeeding guidelines in the United States recommend exclusive breastfeeding to six months of age, followed by continued breastfeeding to at least one year. Yet only a small percentage of infants meet these recommendations. Brenda and I have blogged many times on the benefits of breastfeeding. Most importantly, breastfeeding helps to boost the beneficial gut bacteria in infants, which helps set them up for a lifetime of better health. Breast milk contains the prebiotic GOS (galactoligosaccharide), which feeds good bacteria in the gut. It also contains beneficial Bifidobacteria, as some researchers recently discovered.
It would have been interesting to see the gut bacteria levels in the participants of this study. My guess is that those with longer breastfeeding (and lower inflammation) would have a healthier balance of gut bacteria.
If you have been on the fence about breastfeeding, please know that it’s one of the best things you can do for your infant. Strive to breastfeed for a minimum (longer, if possible) of one year. If you are unable to breastfeed for health reasons or because you do not produce enough milk, a probiotic supplement formulated for infants is recommended.
McDade TW, Metzger MW, Chyu L, et al., “Long-term effects of birth weight and breastfeeding duration on inflammation in early adulthood.”Proc Biol Sci. 2014 Apr 23;281(1784):20133116.