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Got Milk? Breastfeeding Crucial For Gut Health, UC Davis Research Shows

Courtesy UC Davis

UC Davis neonatologist Dr. Mark Underwood.

Courtesy UC Davis

Modern medicine strives to keep bad germs out of our systems, but sometimes it wipes out good bacteria, too. Scientists at UC Davis say breast milk could hold the key to a healthy bacterial balance.

It all comes down to the gut microbiome - the community of microbes, fungi and viruses that live in our intestines. Some of these organisms cause disease, while others aid in digestion, immunity, and growth. New UC Davis research shows that babies who are breastfed start out with more diverse microbiomes, which protect them from obesity, allergies and other chronic diseases later in life.

“When a mom provides breast milk to her baby, she’s providing a whole bunch of food - not just to help her baby grow but to help good bacteria inside her baby’s intestines to grow,” said Dr. Mark Underwood, a UC Davis neonatologist.

After a baby leaves the womb, a lot of factors affect gut health, Underwood said. Those include delivery method, antibiotic use and, perhaps most importantly, diet.

Until about a decade ago, scientists were in the dark about exactly why breast milk protects babies so well. Using new chemical separation technology, UC Davis scientists have pinpointed a special sugar molecule called a human milk oligosaccharide. It helps the baby’s good microbes thrive, leaving little space for bad germs to spread.

But since the advent of formula in the 1960’s, lots of moms have stopped passing this important ingredient to babies. As C-sections and antibiotic use become more common, we’re gradually taking out soldiers from the gut’s protective army, Underwood said.

“We’ve created a whole generation of folks who have missed out on the protective benefits of human milk,” he said. “As a society, we’re likely to continue to see very high rates of obesity and diabetes and allergies, unless we can adjust that community of bacteria in the guts of babies and young children.”

Milk isn’t the whole answer, but exclusive breastfeeding for at least four months will give babies a good start, Underwood said. Some formula is enriched with lab-created sugars similar to those in breast milk, but Underwood said the effect isn’t quite the same.

At UC Davis, he and other researchers are looking at probiotics as a way to help preemie babies, who are often born without good bacteria or placed on antibiotics early in life.

Underwood will talk about the benefits of breast milk on Thursday July 27 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Old Soul @ 40 Acres, 3434 Broadway, Sacramento.


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