How Breast Milk Can Help the Immune System

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Posted: 14/06/2016 Print

How Breast Milk Can Help the Immune System

Guest article by Sam Hadadi,

Breast Milk and the Immune System

Whether you’re a breast or bottle feeder, getting your precious little bundle off to the best possible start is the one thing all new mums have in common.

Over the last few decades, huge strides in formula have given mums plenty of options when it comes to feeding their babies. Yet, if you’re wondering if breast is best for you (and your little one), then you might want to read on…

Fertility and sunscreen

For years, scientists have thought that breast milk can help to strengthen a newborn’s immune system – and now there’s a whole new wealth of evidence to suggest that a mother’s milk can also help to grow a healthy gut.

A Recent Study

In a brand new study1 by UC Berkeley researchers, huge strides have been made to discover that a mother’s breast milk supports immune responses in a newborn. These, in turn, help a baby’s gut to become a healthy home to all sorts of happy bacteria.

This is hugely important for our little ones. You see, it’s widely believed that the gut is sterile and bacteria-free at birth - and then, boom! When we give birth, the infant is suddenly exposed to bacteria from the wider, scarier world.

As the baby slowly grows, its body learns to tolerate all sorts of different bacterial species. This relationship is win-win, for both baby and the bacteria - in exchange for free meals, the gut bacteria help with digestion, prevents infection and boosts immune function.

However, this new study takes things one step further. It starts to shed light on how a mother’s antibodies from breast milk work alongside a newborn’s immune system. It’s thought that this can shape lifelong immune responses that lead to a healthy, happy balance between a baby and its very own gut flora.


While that may not seem all that important, this balance can actually affect our future health. You see, if things fall out of sync in the gut when we’re a baby, or our gut balance falters in later years, we can develop chronic inflammatory conditions, including Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.

How Did the Study Work?

By studying mice, researchers Gregory Barton and Meghan Koch found that three specific types of antibodies - known as Immunoglobulin A (IgA), Immunoglobulin G2b (IgG2b), and immunoglobulin G3 (IgG3) - are present in breast milk. Each of this happy trio works to promote peace between the immune system and the gut-dwelling bacteria by putting out the fire on inflammatory responses.

These antibodies have their own important roles and the researchers believe that they could do some pretty clever stuff. The IgA antibody, for example, is helpful in fighting pathogens and preventing bacteria from working its way into the gut wall and entering the circulation.

These same IgG antibodies have also been known to enter the infant while they’re growing safely in the womb and to help fight infection.

What’s more, the UC Berkeley scientists found immune responses triggered by IgG2b- and IgG3 in mice that were just two weeks old. Although these responses tapered off after three weeks, they grew stronger again in older mice.

So, what’s the significance of this? As Koch said: "The presence of these antibodies in young mice suggested that, like IgA, they are maternally derived.”

In fact, when the maternally-derived IgG2b, IgG3 and IgA antibodies were removed from the mice, they became more susceptible to inflammatory responses. Put more simply, babies without these antibodies are more prone to infection and inflammation.

What Does It Mean?

Let’s leave it with the researchers to explain…

Koch added: "This study provides real evidence that breast milk is important for a newborn's health.

“Breastfeeding helps to instruct the newborn's immune system on how to appropriately respond to non-pathogenic bacteria, many of which may reside in the gut for a lifetime."

Put another way, a baby’s antibody response isn’t necessarily dependent on rousing the T helper cells (the so-called soldiers of the immune system) but, instead, relies on calling upon the earlier-evolved, innate immune system.

These same responses can help the immune system to kick out any bad bacteria that could enter our body’s circulation, without triggering an overwhelming inflammatory response.

In other words, the IgG antibodies found in breast milk can help to create peace between the immune system and your everyday gut-dwelling bacteria by putting the dampener on inflammatory responses.

What’s more, there are plenty of other components found in breast milk which shape the composition of the gut microbiota. Old studies have shown that there are sugars in breast milk that commensal bacteria (the “friendly” bacteria that lives in our gut) can get energy from.

A mother’s breast milk is pretty clever stuff, and it even contains other molecules - made by the mother's immune system - that help a baby’s gut to tolerate those friendly microbes. And all while keeping them safely in the gut and away from the rest of the body.

Obviously, it's up to each new mum to decide how best to feed their little one and for some, breast feeding can prove difficult. What we particularly liked about this study was how, once again, keeping things natural where possible, has such great benefits.

Can you improve the nutrient value of breast milk? Apparently our article on Nutrients in Breast Milk Vary Thanks to Diet.

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About Sam

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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.

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