With every kind of formula available for newborns these days, breastfeeding has become a personal choice rather than a necessity. Some mothers take to it naturally; others struggle – let’s face it, coaxing a screaming infant to feed when you’re tired and your breasts are aching isn’t the easiest thing in the world. If the results of a new study are anything to go by, however, it’s definitely worth persevering.
Experts have long known that breastmilk conveys important health benefits to babies, but there’s growing evidence that mothers benefit significantly from the act, too. Indeed, research shows breastfeeding lowers your risk of a whole host of conditions including breast cancer, ovarian cancer, cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. And now it seems it could even lower your risk of developing multiple sclerosis.
Hormonal factors in MS
Researchers from Kaiser Permanente Medical Centre in Southern California had a hunch that the sex hormones involved in ovulation (the process by which a woman’s body produces an egg every month) might play a role in multiple sclerosis risk. The fact that women are two and a half times more likely than men to develop the disease and that it typically strikes during the reproductive years certainly suggests a hormonal link.
To investigate their theory, the researchers questioned 830 women – 433 of them healthy, and 397 having been diagnosed with MS or a clinically isolated syndrome (CIS). Comparing the responses of the two groups revealed that healthy women who breastfed their children for 15 months or more (that’s in total, i.e. following one or more pregnancies) had a 53% lower risk of developing MS or CIS compared with MS patients who had breastfed for only four months or not at all.
Interestingly, though, no connection was found between other reproductive factors such as contraceptive pill use, age at first pregnancy and number of pregnancies – indicating that the total number of years a woman ovulated was not associated with risk of MS. In other words, it appears to be something about breastfeeding itself that benefits the health of mothers, rather than the fact it affects levels of sex hormones.
Incidentally, even if you already have MS, there’s still good reason to breastfeed – past research shows those who do are almost half as likely to experience a relapse in the first six months after giving birth compared with women with MS who opt for formula. So what is it about breastfeeding that protects against MS?
Breastfeeding and the immune system
Neurologist Dr Annette Langer-Gould, one of the key researchers involved in the study, has suggested that the act of breastfeeding could bring about important immune changes that help to reduce inflammation.
We know, for example, that breastfeeding triggers the release of a powerful hormone called oxytocin that calms the entire nervous system, and may help regulate the immune system. Of course, it could also be that women who breastfeed are generally more health conscious; they’re less likely to smoke for example, which is a risk factor for MS.
Whatever the case, the overall health benefits of breastfeeding are hard to ignore – though whether or not your baby agrees is another matter! If you’re struggling with breastfeeding, speak to your midwife or GP, or reach out to a local breastfeeding support group. It might take a little while to get used to, but the health benefits could last you and your little one a lifetime. Something to think about when you’re shopping for maternity bras.