The Truest Superfood Out There

New findings on breast milk reveal even more impressive properties

Blueberries, kale, salmon, chia seeds, acai — fad diets tout countless “superfoods” these days. Sure, these foods might pack antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. But when it comes to real superfoods, there’s an undisputed winner: breast milk.

Breast milk contains powerful nutritional elements — whey and casein proteins, healthy fats, and essential vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Children who are too young to receive vaccinations for certain illnesses could receive immunity from their mother’s milk.

It also contains antibodies and has antiviral properties that give infants borrowed immunity against disease. New research from University of California, Riverside, shows that breast milk also educates infants on how to build their own immune systems.

Maternal immune cells within the milk travel to the thymus, an immune system organ that produces white blood cells. The maternal cells then give the baby a snapshot of different diseases to which the mother has been exposed during her lifetime. “It’s as though the mother is saying, ‘Look what I have seen in the environment that you need to be immune to as well,'” said Dr. Ameae Walker, professor of biomedical sciences at UC Riverside, in a media release.

This discovery holds a great deal of promise for infant survival. Children who are too young to receive vaccinations for certain illnesses could receive immunity from their mother’s milk, if the mother received vaccine boosts shortly before delivery.

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Tuberculosis, for instance, causes 1.5 million deaths each year, including 140,000 infant deaths. The TB vaccine does not prevent the respiratory complications from the disease either. Yet mothers who receive the vaccine shortly before giving birth could potentially provide their children with cells that could teach them how to be immune.

Related: ‘I Wanted Birth My Way’

“In the less developed world, we could hope to immunize mothers and that immunity can be passed to the babies and that means that we could essentially immunize babies before they could receive the immunization themselves,” said Dr. Walker.

Breast milk can also reduce the number of infections that premature infants contract while in the NICU.

In addition to teaching infants how to build their immune systems, breast milk can also reduce the number of infections that premature infants contract while in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). A recent study from University of Missouri used a protein found in breast milk, called lactoferrin, to boost the immune systems of 60 infants. They fed a placebo to 60 other infants. All babies in the trial had low birth weights, ranging from 1 pound, 10 ounces to 3 pounds, 4 ounces.

“Hospitals can be hot spots for infections and can sometimes amplify spread,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a media release. “Patients with serious infections are near sick and vulnerable patients — all cared for by the same health care workers, sometimes using shared equipment.”

Infections such as these can cost as much as $9 billion each year to treat.

Related: Please Nurse in Private. Thank You.

Researchers in the study gave infants lactoferrin in protein form, not as breast milk. These infants experienced a 50-percent decrease in infection risk when compared to the infants on the placebo. These findings are especially promising because hospital-acquired infections such as meningitis have been rising among infants. It’s possible a breast milk boost could turn the tide for some of these vulnerable patients.

Related: The Science of Being a Mom

Not all new mothers are in a condition to breastfeed exclusively. Postpartum recovery, work-life balance, and supreme exhaustion make it nearly impossible for many women to breastfeed their children without supplementing with formula. But when it comes to breast milk — even a little can go a long way.

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