LACTATION integrates a powerful biological unit, the nursing mother-infant dyad, and is energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
Milk ducts and lobes are embedded between fat and glands, and they develop under hormonal influences through signals from mid-pregnancy for baby, who’s on the way. Hormones influence uptake of nutrients from mum’s own circulation and, enhanced by skin-to-skin contact, mum’s hormonal profile encourages milk flow. Milk is squeezed into the nipple and baby’s suckling, an energy driven process, encourages milk removal and its continued flow. Breastmilk in baby’s gut transforms into nutrition, immunological substances, bioactive ingredients, anti-cancer agents, hormones and mysterious cellular messengers. Unlike formula milk, there is no need for cultivating, creating, storing or purchasing these myriad dynamic functions.
The energy of breastfeeding is mostly conserved within a feedback loop embracing giver and recipient. Nutritional vibrancy is transmuted to physical and emotional energy enhancing growth, development and disease protection. The efficient mother-infant pair saves the environment that would otherwise be affected in many ways – by poor growth, suboptimal development, short- and long-term diseases that drain resources and pollute atmospheres.
As the baby suckles, baby-led cues, perhaps through baby’s saliva, stimulate milk that is personalised, greater in amount, with illness specific antibodies. There is varied milk composition at different times of the day over the course of lactation in mothers who deliver preterm infants and among mothers of different races.
Breastfeeding has naturally renewable resources of nutrients and is sufficient for a term infant’s growth and development, even when mum’s own nutrition is inadequate. Breastmilk comprises water, protein, fat and lactose. Adapting to requirements in baby, foremilk is different from hindmilk. During early lactation, the protein content in breastmilk is higher, decreasing within 4-6 weeks or more of lactation.
Nutrients in breastmilk can transform and perform entirely different sets of functions. Alpha-lactalbumin, an abundant protein in breastmilk, synthesises lactose, without any effect on tumour cells. However, in baby’s stomach, it unfolds and combines with an omega-9 fatty acid in milk, protecting against cancers.
White blood cells and antibodies in breastmilk are high in numbers in early postpartum, and colostrum protects the vulnerable child from infections. In the first two weeks of delivery, white blood cells decrease, maintained throughout lactation unless the mother or her infant becomes infected, when these cells increase again to protect one or both from infections. Infection protection reduces antibiotic usage, medication and hospitalisation, all of which aren’t friendly to the environment.
Maternal gut microbes reach mum’s lactating breasts, through a link between her gut and her breasts. This allows immune factors enriched by mum’s exposures to strengthen baby’s immunity in baby’s environment. A tetrad comprising mum, baby, milk and microbes shared between them is a confined feedback loop perpetually transferring bacteria between them, resourcefully utilising mum’s immune experiences.
Breastmilk contains diverse glycans, energetically costly for mum to produce, but the energy isn’t wasted because of the many functions they provide. While lactose – a glycan – is nutritive, other glycans are absorbed and utilised for dietary calories. Yet others prevent microbes from binding to intestinal mucous membranes, reducing infections. Glycans stimulate growth of beneficial bacteria with possible roles in preventing short- and long-term diseases of body and brain.
While by breastfeeding itself, there is no need to pour in water and clean bottles, the gut environment provided by breastmilk glycans are certainly environmentally responsive. Protection from diarrheas means fewer discarded soiled pampers, reduced hospitalisation costs and fecal contamination. Fecal contamination of the environment can trigger infectious pandemics with massive socioeconomic and human costs.
Glycans have been synthesised in biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, possibly emulating their dynamic empowerment of breastmilk nutrition.
Cross talk, through microRNAs (miRNAs), within “exosomes” in breastmilk could regulate proteins for immune development. Stem cells in milk may support growth, repair and regeneration from cellular damage. These may well be breastmilk agents supporting the environment by reducing social burden and environmental disruption. – June 30, 2020.
* Dr Prameela Kannan Kutty is professor of paediatrics at Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.