There are numerous benefits of breastfeeding to your baby’s health, but do you know your future health can benefit from it too?
WORDS NURULHUDA SUHAIMI
Do you know research has found that breastfeeding may create a positive impact on your own future health? Some studies have found an inverse relation between breastfeeding and the mother’s risk of developing certain diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases (i.e. the longer the mother breastfeeds, the lower her risk). We spoke to Dr Janice Tung, associate consultant in the Division of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, who explained more on these long-term benefits of breastfeeding on maternal health.
According to Dr Tung, there has been evidence that indicate the positive impact of breastfeeding on lowering the risk of ovarian cancer and breast cancer, two of the cancer diseases that afflict women most commonly.
She says that women who have breastfed had a lower risk of developing ovarian cancer by an estimated 30 per cent, compared to those who have not breastfed. “This is because breastfeeding prevents ovulation that may promote ovarian cancer growth,” she explains.
In the case of breast cancer, women who have breastfed had
roughly a 20 per cent lowered risk of developing it.
This lower risk of breast cancer is related to breastfeeding women’s
exposure to oestrogen levels in their lifetime.
“When a woman breastfeeds, her body suppresses the production of female hormones like oestrogen for that duration and hence, her lifetime exposure to such hormones that may promote breast cancer growth is reduced,” says Dr Tung.
In addition, the risk of both these cancers seems to be affected by how long a woman breastfeeds. According to a 2015 study published in Acta Paediatrica, a peer-reviewed journal that covers paediatric research, women who breastfed for at least 12 months experienced the most reduction in the risk of ovarian cancer (37 per cent), while those who breastfed for less than six months experienced the lowest reduction (17 per cent).
Type 2 diabetes mellitus is another disease that has been found to occur less in breastfeeding women than in those who did not breastfeed (a reduction in risk by about 30 per cent, according to Dr Tung). This is due to how breastfeeding affects the body’s response to insulin.
“In type 2 diabetes mellitus, cells do not respond properly to insulin (a hormone that causes cells to take in sugar from the blood). Hence, blood sugar levels are not well-controlled, resulting in damage to various organs such as the eyes, kidneys, and heart. Breastfeeding increases the insulin response and improves the metabolism of sugar in mothers,” explains Dr Tung.
As with ovarian and breast cancer, the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes also appears to be affected by the breastfeeding duration. According to a study published in 2010 in The American Journal of Medicine, mothers who did not exclusively breastfeed at all faced a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 50 per cent than mothers who exclusively breastfed for a period of three months.
The positive effects of breastfeeding on a mother’s future health do not stop there. Breastfeeding has also been found to reduce a mother’s risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, specifically heart disease and stroke. “A recent large study in China concluded that breastfeeding was associated with about 10 per cent lower risk of heart disease and stroke, compared to those who have never breastfed,” says Dr Tung.
“This risk was lower with every additional six months of breastfeeding in a woman’s lifetime,” she adds.
The relationship between breastfeeding and cardiovascular
health appears to be linked to how breastfeeding allows women to lose
the weight they have gained during pregnancy.
As explained by Dr Tung, “Breastfeeding helps the mother to efficiently lose the accumulated fat or energy stores gained during pregnancy. Women who do not breastfeed have excess energy stores that may contribute to risk factors for heart disease such as obesity and raised cholesterol levels in future.”
Does Duration Matter?
We have mentioned above how mothers who breastfeed for a longer period of time experience the most reduced risk of developing these diseases, compared to those who do not breastfeed at all or only for a short period of time. Thus, the duration of breastfeeding does seem to have an impact on the risk of mothers developing certain diseases.
As Dr Tung explains, “Mothers who breastfeed longer for at least 12 months experience the greatest health benefits compared to those who do not breastfeed at all. To date, large reviews of the literature research have found that breastfeeding reduces the risk of the two most important causes of mortality in today’s developed world – cancer and cardiovascular disease.”
With this in mind, how long should you be breastfeeding your baby? “The American Academy of Family Physicians and other leading world health organisations such as World Health Organization have endorsed these views in their recommendations that women breastfeed their infants for at least 12 months, and exclusively in the first six months,” says Dr Tung.
What if I Bottle-Feed?
You might be wondering if you can enjoy these benefits too if you pump your breast milk and bottle-feed your baby instead. Fortunately, Dr Tung reassures that mothers who bottle-feed will be able to experience these long-term health benefits as well. “As the above benefits are not a result of the actual act of breastfeeding itself, women who bottle-feed their breast milk can enjoy the same effects,” she says.
However, Dr Tung adds it might be harder for mothers who bottle-feed to produce an adequate supply of milk for their baby in the long-term. She explains, “It can be more difficult to sustain sufficient milk production in the longer term without baby’s suckling to stimulate the flow of milk. Mothers may have to make more efforts to keep their milk supply up through ways such as pumping more frequently and hand expressing.”