Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are currently responsible for 70% of deaths worldwide and include conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancers, respiratory diseases and diabetes (West 2015). The gut microbiome can be described as the healthy intestinal flora (bacteria) and there is a growing amount of evidence that it can protect infants from developing these NCDs and can influence epigenetic changes (Rollins 2016). The healthy gut flora is largely determined in infancy, with vaginal homebirth and breastfeeding being the biggest contributors (Penders 2006). Therefore, by breastfeeding, it is highly possible that we might be able to reduce the incidence of these NCDs, reduce the suffering from them, on the individuals affected, their friends and family. Not forgetting the economic impact due to time off work which leads to further pressure and strain on families to try and meet the rising cost of living.
The microbiome has also been linked with neurodevelopment. Studies in animals have shown changes in emotional responses and the biochemistry of the brain when changes have been made to the gut flora (Tillisch 2013). An additional cross-sectional study looked at the development of the brain in exclusively breastfed, combination-fed and formula-fed children. The research showed that, by age 2, babies who had been breastfed exclusively for at least three months had enhanced development in key parts of the brain compared to children who were fed formula or combination-fed. The enhanced development was found in areas of the brain that are involved with language, emotional function and cognition (Deoni 2013). Could it be that breastfeeding might play a vital role in influencing children’s neural development? With the raised profile of mental health and the rise in mental health, this is certainly an interesting area for scientists to explore further.
Feature photo credit: PB2007
Kate Butler is a Secondary School Biology teacher by day and mother to two boys (aged 2 and 4) day and night. She trained as a breastfeeding peer supporter in 2013 and since then has set up local peer support meetings in her local area and joined the committee of West Herts Breastfeeders to support with fundraising and event management. West Herts Breastfeeders is a community based mum to mum peer support group that supports breastfeeding families with their breastfeeding journeys in the community and within West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust.
Deoni S.C.L., Dean D.C., Piryatinsky I., O’Muircheartaigh J., Waskiewicz N., Lehman K. Han M., Dirks H. Breastfeeding and early white matter development: A cross-sectional study NeuroImage 2013, 82, 77-86.
Penders J, Thijs C, Vink C, et al. Factors inﬂuencing the composition of the intestinal microbiota in early infancy. Pediatrics 2006; 118: 511 –21
Rollins N, Bhandari N, Hajeebhoy N et al. Why invest, and what it will take to improve breastfeeding practices? The Lancet 2016; 387(10017): 491–504
Tillisch K, Labus J, Kilpatrick L, et al. Consumption of fermented milk product with probiotic modulates brain activity. Gastroenterology 2013; 144: 1394–401.
West C, Renz H, Jenmalm MC et al. The gut microbiota and inflammatory noncommunicable diseases: Associations and potentials for gut microbiota therapies. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 2015; 135(1): 3–13.