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Lower rates of childhood obesity, decreased incidence of asthma and even better brain development are all linked with drinking more of mother's milk in infancy, and despite decades of research and promising marketing claims, the formula industry has not caught up to mother nature in the milk department.
But even if technicians could develop a better food for infants, researchers are now realizing that skipping the lactation phase would be problematic for mothers' health.
In fact, not breastfeeding after giving birth seems to put women at higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many other serious health conditions.
The mechanisms behind these increased risks are still being sorted out, but researchers think that by not engaging in the process that the body prepares for during pregnancy, many crucial systems can go out of whack.
And the effects can last for decades after children are weaned. When women cannot or choose not to breastfeed, "there are myriad consequences, and we're just figuring them out," she says. This image, based on medical imaging and computer rendering by the Visual MDreveals the some of the biological systems affected during lactation, many of which are now thought to have lasting effects on a woman's health.
Costs of not nursing About 85 percent of U. Almost three quarters of women in the latest year for which data are available started breastfeeding their infants shortly after birth. By six months, however, only 42 percent of women were still feeding their babies any breast milk at all with 12 percent still feeding exclusively breast milk at that point.
Considering the improved health outcomes for the infants alone, the U. And that sum says nothing of the money that might be saved on health costs for mothers if they breastfed, which Bartick estimates would be "significant. For example, among women who had children, those who did not breastfeed had a For women who never become pregnant, many of their risks seem to be closer to those who have children and breastfed.
Mobilizing mothers' fat Those breastfeeding benefits accrue in part because nursing can start to break down some of the fat that accumulates in women's bodies during pregnancy. At first, some mothers despair for their figures because having children generally leads to thicker midsections and thighs as women's bodies change to nourish a developing fetus and boost stores for feeding the baby once it is born.
Although not optimal for long-term health, this extra weight serves an important evolutionary function. Producing milk for a single infant requires about extra calories a day. Various analyses have come back with different information of the ability of breastfeeding to help women slim down more quickly after pregnancy.
New research presented in March from Schwarz and Candace McClure, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Epidemiology, found that women who had not breastfed had an average of about seven and a half additional centimeters of fat around their waists as gleaned from CT scans.
But as Schwarz points out, "not all body fat is created equal. Their CT study also found that, of the women aged 45 to 58, those who had children and not breastfed had 28 percent more visceral fat than those who had consistently breastfed.
Lactating women appear to be better at mobilizing these new fat stores than new mothers who are using formula. And not shedding those extra post-pregnancy pounds may put women at risk for complications in later pregnancies as well as metabolic syndrome and related health problems, Stuebe and colleagues noted in a January review article published in the American Journal of Perinatology.
One big concern about these additional fat stores is their potential role in upping chances for diabetes later in life. Pregnancy itself can decrease glucose tolerance and raise insulin resistance, hence the prevalence of gestational diabetes.
But research is accumulating to suggest that the process of lactation works to re-establish the balance of these key sensitivities. According to a cohort analysis by Stuebe et al. Women who develop gestational diabetes are generally thought to be at higher risk for developing regular diabetes later in life.
But new research has shown that this increased risk is significantly lessened for women who breastfeed for more than nine months, Schwarz points out.
She adds that being able to tell women who have had gestational diabetes that breastfeeding will lower their chances of getting diabetes later has given her and many of her patients renewed hope for their future health. Helping heart health Breastfeeding helps mothers' cardiovascular health in very specific ways, Schwartz found in her analysis of postmenopausal women.
In fact, those who had breastfed for more than 12 months were about 10 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease compared with women who had not breastfed. Schwarz and others are still trying to figure out why not nursing might lead to hardened arteries and other cardiovascular risk factors.
One possible explanation hinges on cholesterol levels, which increase during pregnancy. For mothers who do not breastfeed, levels of triglycerides seem to take longer by about three months to reach pre-pregnancy levels.
Nursing mothers also seemed to have higher levels of high-density lipoprotein HDL, or so-called "good cholesterol" while they were breastfeeding.
But these shorter-term effects do not entirely clear up some of the questions surrounding heart disease later in life. Better long-term heart health for breastfeeding mothers might stem in part from blood pressure, which was "significantly higher" in mothers who had not breastfed than in those who had mmHg and mmHg, respectivelyaccording to the Schwarz study.
Research has suggested that one in 29 cases of postmenopausal hypertension could be avoided if mothers breastfed for at least 12 months during their reproductive years. Risks for cardiovascular disease in lactating versus non-lactating mothers seem to be firm regardless of BMI, which is usually a factor for both conditions.
This finding "indicates that lactation does more than simply reduce a woman's fat stores," Schwarz and her colleagues wrote in their May paper. They proposed that hormonal stimulation is likely playing a substantial role.Women's Studies Term Paper.
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