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Breast Milk Is Amazing! What Makes It The Ultimate Superfood?

Every day we hear about different types of super foods, be it quinoa, kale or coconut oil but breast milk is, without doubt, the ultimate super food. Scientists are learning more and more about how amazing breast milk is and in the last ten or so years the research into breast milk has exploded, for example, there is now very serious research into using components in breast milk as a treatment for cancer.

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Most people think that the main purpose of breast milk is to make a baby grow and put on weight. However, breast milk is extremely versatile and has many other functions.  Two of these vitally important functions is to protect the newborn baby from bacteria and viruses and also to stimulate the baby’s own immune system to mature and grow.  By stimulating the baby’s own immune system to start fully functioning breast milk ensures that the baby will be able to fight infections throughout childhood and beyond. 

Lactoferrin, alpha-lactalbumin, oligosaccharides,  and secretory immunoglobulin A  may sound as if they come from the realm of science fiction but in actual fact, they are just a four of the thousands of special components that are found in breast milk. Breast milk is made up of water, fats, sugars, proteins, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and many other components.   In total, breast milk is 87% water with the remaining 13% packed with substances that do so much more than just nourish a baby. 
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Breast milk has a tall order to fill; a new born baby is born with an extremely immature immune system due to being protected by the sterile environment of the uterus during the pregnancy.  From the moment of birth, a baby is exposed to bacteria and viruses that he or she will have never previously encountered and this makes the baby vulnerable to diseases and infections.  Luckily, breast milk is very cleverly designed to protect the newborn baby from most potentially harmful infections.

One of the reasons breast milk is so effective is because 70 to 80 % of the immune system is located in the intestines (our stomach and bowels), so when a baby breastfeeds the milk is going to exactly the right place where lactoferrin, alpha-lactalbumin, oligosaccharides, cytokines and secretory immunoglobulin A can get to work.  

Lactoferrin has a nutritional role as a protein but its main function is one of defence. It works in conjunction with other components in breast milk to help kill bacteria, viruses and fungi.  It has also been shown in some studies to protect the baby against urinary tract infections and this may explain why breastfed babies have a lower incidence of urinary tract infections compared to non-breastfed babies. 
READ NEXT: How Do I Get Started With Breastfeeding?

Alpha-lactalbumin is also a milk protein but it has the incredible ability to attack cancerous cells and kill them.  This ability has been named by the research scientists as HAMLET – Human Alphalactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumour cells, this process is thought to help protect the mother from breast cancer and to protect the baby’s intestinal system from cancerous cells.  It is also thought to be the reason why breastfed babies have a lower incidence of childhood leukaemia.

Oligosaccharides are the scientific term for all the different types of combinations of sugars that are present in breast milk and so far there have been over 200 different types of oligosaccharides found in breast milk!  These sugars work to protect the baby from bacterial and viral infections by stopping them from adhering to the intestinal wall and thus preventing infection. 

Secretory Immunoglobulin A (SIgA) is the major antibody in human milk and its role is to prevent infections which it does by attaching itself to the intestinal wall and blocking bacteria and viruses. SIgA also protects the baby from infections that the mother is exposed to.  So when the mother is exposed to various bacteria and viruses while she is out and about she is able to protect her baby from them just by breastfeeding. 

These are just some of the components that are available in breast milk and it shows how versatile breast milk is, that it can adapt and change to provide what each individual baby needs – it is truly custom made  - truly the ultimate superfood!

Breast milk is a part of nature’s intrinsic plan to nourish and protect the baby so every single time a baby breastfeeds all these substances and many, many more are given to the baby.  Add to this the fact that breast milk is always available, always the right temperature, always just want the baby needs, requires no preparation and is free it is easy to see why breastfeeding is so beneficial for mum and baby.

About the Author

A Registered General Nurse, Midwife and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant with over twenty years experience. For the past ten years Clare has been teaching antenatal classes, breastfeeding preparation classes and providing breastfeeding support for moms in Ireland.

"I love my work, it is a privilege to help women during this important time of their life."

To find out more visit www.breastfeedingconsultant.ie

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