We know that breastmilk has all kinds of goodies in it that act as miracle workers in babies' bodies. Breastmilk contains hormones, antimicrobial factors, enzymes, vitamins, sterols, amino acids, and so much more in addition to our main nutritional building blocks: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.
We also know that breastmilk has everything a baby needs to survive for the first six months of life. But most of us aren't really sure how that's even possible, what tiny nutrients are actually in there, and how those substances interact to sustain life. But miraculously it is more than sustaining, it is filled with all kinds of goodies that can't be replicated in a lab.
Breastmilk doesn't come with an ingredient label. But if it did, we'd probably turn our noses up at all the "chemical" or even "poisonous" sounding things in it, put it back on the shelf with all the other chemical-containing packaged foods, and then miss out on its carefully crafted superpowers. After all, some scientific words sound downright scary before we find out what they actually mean.
Breastmilk is teeming with proteins, antibodies and growth factors that make our babies grow and thrive, alarming as they may sound.
The ingredients in breastmilk might sound like a science experiment (in a way, they are!) But once a parent gets to know and understand them, they'll feel so eager to hand over those same poisonous-sounding chemicals. It's really fascinating when we actually dig into the fine points of this ingredient list:
15 Docosahexaenoic Acid
This complicated sounding acid is actually something you would know very well if we just called it by its well-known abbreviation DHA, right? Yep, it's the fish oil that we all know and love to supplement. This fatty acid is crucial for your baby's brain development and their learning ability as they grow.
In fact, DHA is crucial all the way up through adulthood for normal brain function and Alzheimer's prevention. DHA is increasingly being added to formula as its beneficial properties are becoming more recognized. In fact, DHA in formula has been shown to improve visual acuity in formula-fed babies.
Not only does DHA improve brain function, it also has a positive effect on a myriad of other diseases that might not present until later in life such as hypertension, arthritis, athersclerosis, depression, Type II diabetes, myocardial infarction, thrombosis and certain cancers. See, DHA has some superpowers that will make you eager to give to your baby!
14 Arachidonic Acid
With a prefix similar to "arachnid" (shiver), this alarming sounding acid is actually another one of nature's miracles found in breast milk. Another beneficial fatty acid known as ARA, arachidonic acid is a polyunsaturated Omega-6 fat that your tiny baby's body requires to function.
This fatty acid is one of the building blocks of cell membranes and serves multiple purposes in various tissues throughout the body. AHA is also a precursor for immunity-building processes in the body. So, it's one of those substances that help your baby fight sickness.
In conjunction with DHA, ARA provides babies with byproducts necessary for growth, immune function, and optimal visual and brain development. The body requires a delicate balance of DHA and ARA levels to function properly, so formula makers have to be precise with the ratio of these acids when they add them to formula.
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We could have fun with this word. Do you ogle your saccharides? Olly, go sack a ride! Ok, ok, actually oligosaccharides are no joke! Abbreviated as HMO's (not the kind your employer provides either), human milk oligosaccharides are the main meal of the good bacteria in your baby's gut, where most of their immune system lives.
This may be part of the story behind why babies who are breastfed tend to have stronger immune systems and get sick less. Researches are on the crux of figuring out how to add certain HMO strains to formula to help formula-fed babies reap the same immune-building benefits.
It's interesting to note that oligosaccharides are actually not digestible by your baby's own body. Did you catch that? This HMO is not digested by your baby, but it is digested by her gut bacteria. A mother produces this substance, not to be eaten by her own baby, but by her baby's gut flora. Just. Wow!
12 Eicosapentaenoic Acid
You see "acid" in the name, and suddenly you're alarmed. But then, you realize, this acid is well known by its more common abbreviation, EPA. EPA is DHA's cohort omega-3 fatty acid that comes mostly from fish. It's an acid that has positive effects on coronary heart disease, high triglycerides, high cholesterol, and inflammation. Good stuff!
For children and babies, EPA helps with brain development. Scientists are even trying to study whether or not omega-3s help reduce ADHD symptoms as children grow. Babies whose mothers get enough EPA in their diets should get enough through breast milk. So nursing moms, make sure you're eating the right kind of fatty fish or taking your fish oil supplements (with your doctor's guidance, of course), because this fatty acid is part of your baby's complete diet.
Alpha, what now? With a name like that, you'd think your baby was drinking some kind of wacky punch. But the real story behind alpha-lactalbumin is much more exciting. Amazingly, alpha-lactalbumin is the primary protein in human milk and the very backbone of your baby's perfect nutrition.
The protein has a naturally well-balanced amino acid profile, as you'd expect from this life-sustaining substance.
Not only does the protein provide essential nutrition for your baby, but it may help your baby's body absorb other minerals, particularly calcium and zinc. Then, there's the antibacterial, anti-infective, and immunostimulatory properties of alpha-lactalbumin. In other words, it's another one of those miracle substances that helps keep your baby from getting sick.
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By its other name, lactotransferrin, lactoferrin sounds no less revolting. However, like the other ingredients in our list, it does some pretty powerful work in your baby's body. Lactoferrin is a protein that is found in all kinds of bodily fluids, including saliva, tears, and, of course, a mother's milk.
The life-sustaining function of lactoferrin is to transport iron in the blood. Lactoferrin is one of the substances that is proliferate in a mother's first milk. In fact, levels of lactoferrin are about 7 times higher in colostrum than in a mother's later milk.
Some fun facts about lactoferrin: it is used in the agricultural industry to kill bacteria during meat processing (so think of the bad bacteria it wipes out in your baby!). Lactoferrin is also used in medicinal form to help with the absorption of iron in those that are deficient. Researchers think that the lactoferrin in breast milk helps protect infants against bacterial infections.
9 Serum Albumin
Anything with serum in the name makes you think of something you would buy at the makeup counter. But of course, this serum does some serious good for the insides of your baby's body. This serum is a protein that plays an essential role in building muscle and bone in your baby's body. It also helps regulate fluid balance in the body.
Serum Albumin is the primary protein of your baby's blood plasma. It transports hormones, bilirubin, calcium, fatty acids and other substances where they need to go. It is also instrumental in keeping blood from seeping out of the veins into nearby tissue. Preterm newborns may be born with low serum albumin levels and require infusions to stay healthy. And low levels of the substance can be a sign of liver or kidney disease.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1600"] Via: MathewHawkesPhysiotherapy.blogspot.com[/caption]
Creatine is a non-protein nitrogen substance that you'll often notice bodybuilders take for muscle building. And it's also a substance that's found in your breast milk. It works similarly in your baby's body by helping build their tiny little muscles and supplying energy to muscle cells. The levels of plasma creatine in a newborn's body is directly related to the baby's size and muscle mass. It is also essential for neural developments, as errors in creatine synthesis can result in mental retardation and epilepsy.
Our bodies, and our baby's bodies, can produce creatine on their own in the kidneys and liver. So, it isn't an essential nutrient that must come from a food source. After being produced, creatine goes out and lives in the brain, blood and tissues, with the majority of it residing in skeletal muscle.
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Molybdenum is actually a metal, but before you freak out about having metal in your milk, you might be interested to know that it's an essential trace element for the body. Molybdenum is actually a normal part of many natural ecosystems and can be found in the soil that our food is grown in.
Not only is the metal instrumental in many ecological processes, it also plays an instrumental role in you and your baby's bodies. Our bodies have at least seven enzymes that rely on molybdenum to do their work, and it's needed to break down certain amino acids in our bodies.
Your baby only requires trace amounts of molybdenum, which is easily supplied by breast milk and easily supplied to you through a healthy diet. It's extremely rare to find someone who is deficient in molybdenum. This usually only happens in places where there's little molybdenum in the soil or in people with genetic errors in their bodies.
Phagocytes sound like they might be some kind of weird parasite in the body. But the opposite is actually true! These little cells actually engulf and gobble up bad bacteria, viruses, and foreign particles in the body. Phagocytes are another part of the story about how your breast milk helps protect your baby's immune system. More phagocytes are present in the breast milk of moms with premature babies. It's like our bodies know that a baby born early will be more vulnerable and susceptible to illness and make more immune boosters in response.
As we dig deeper into all these chemical-sounding substances in breast milk, like phagocytes, you start to get a deeper appreciation for why people refer to breast milk "liquid gold."
5 Diamine Oxidase
Another name for Diamine oxidase is histaminase. An anti-inflammatory component of breast milk, histaminase helps take down histamines. As you may be aware, your body produces histamines as an immune response to injury or allergens and it causes inflammation.
Basically, histaminase is a natural over-the-counter antihistamine that you give your baby through breast milk. Baby fever is much more pleasant to deal with than hay fever.
Aside from breast milk, histaminase is found in its highest concentrations in the digestive tract and placenta to attack histamines and reduce inflammation. Perhaps this alarming-sounding chemical is what helps build your baby's resistance to allergies.
You've probably heard of corticosteroids, and you're wondering what this funky stuff is doing in your baby's milk. Well actually, the adrenal glands naturally produce this steroid hormone. It doesn't seem to play a very important role in the human body, but it does have some effect on carbohydrate, potassium and and sodium metabolism and the production of glucose.
It is a glucocorticoid just like cortisol and is produced in response to stress to a much lesser degree than cortisol.
Corticosterone is a primary stress hormone in rodents, and much of the research about its effects on the body have come from studies on rats. Spiking corticosterone in nursing momma rats seems to embolden her babies, making them less reactive to stress. The baby rats exposed to more corticosterone also showed improved learning and memory.
Though researchers aren't sure how this translates to humans yet, it's still interesting to wonder about how your own hormones might affect the temperament of your baby.
What sounds like some kind of cholesterol medication is really a peptide that helps regulate the endocrine system. Somatostatin is one type of hormone that inhibits the growth hormone in particular, as well as other hormones such as the thyroid stimulating hormone. But why would it want to inhibit the growth hormone?
Well, for starter, somatostatin helps prevent the unnatural rapid production of hormones like you might find in a tumor. It helps balance the secretion of other hormones so the body doesn't produce too much of them. Basically, it's an equalizer.
Although somatostatin levels are found to be high in breast milk, and babies have elevated somatostatin levels which peak at three months, the regulatory role of somatostatin in infants is unknown. But there is a fascinating story about an infant born with chylothorax (leakage of lymph fluid, chyle, from the thoracic duct) that was treated with somastatin, which immediately reduced chyle production.
2 Cytidine Diphosphate Choline
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="3872"] Via: NursingNurture.com[/caption]
We can barely pronounce this one, let alone recognize what it might be. So, let's examine what this substance is. This B complex nutrient, also known as choline, plays a vital role in learning and memory. In fact, one of the drugs that treats Alzheimer's disease has a substance that inhibits the breakdown of choline. The nutrient is a vital component for fetal neural tube, brain, and spinal cord development.
The human body can produce its own choline in the liver, but it also requires a steady supply through the diet. In fact, if our diets are deficient in choline, and we rely solely on our bodies to produce it, we run the risk of eventually developing fatty liver. The demand for choline is particularly pronounced during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
In fact, amniotic fluid has a concentration of choline that is 10 times higher than that found in mom's own blood. It's like the amount of choline available is buffered for the baby so it can pass the blood-brain barrier without hindrance.
Ok, it has meth in the name, so your immediate reaction is to shirk it at all costs. Get me out of here! Right? Wait, wait. The "sterol" part of this word is actually a sign of its favorable reputation. What this poisonous-sounding substance is, is a sterol, a solid steroid alcohol and a precursor to plasma cholesterol.
Since cholesterol is required for the structure and function of every cell in the body, sterols are vital to your and your baby's health. Fun fact: Higher cholesterol intake from breast milk as an infant can actually help reduce blood cholesterol levels in adult life!
Methosterol is accompanied by other sterols in breast milk including squalene, lanosterol, dimethylsterol, lathosterol, desmosterol, and many others, all with equally obscure and perhaps poisonous-sounding names. But you can rest assured that the body is producing these substances with perfect nutritional programming.
Sources: BellyBelly, WebMD, Medical Dictionary, Nature.com