According to a study, published in the Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, breast milk benefits infants by protecting them against Giardia infection and strengthening their immune systems. The latter occurs as a result of cytokines being passed on from mother to child via breastfeeding.
To reach these conclusions, the researchers first recruited 50 mothers and their babies, all of whom were less than one year old, across several hospitals in Egypt. Half of the mothers were breastfeeding their babies while the rest weren’t. As part of their study, the researchers gathered stool samples from the mothers and babies, milk samples from the mothers that breastfed, and serum samples from all babies. Stool samples were collected in order to establish potential cases of Giardia infection among infants, while the milk and serum samples were for studying cytokine levels.
Through this, the researchers were able to identify six cases of Giardia infection, all in the group of infants that weren’t being breastfed. Of the infants with this condition, two were found to have moderate Giardia infection while the rest had severe Giardia infection. As per the researchers, moderate Giardia infection is mainly characterized by fever and/or vomiting. Severe Giardia infection, on the other hand, is distinguished by vomiting, fever, and extreme dehydration. Although there were two Giardia infection cases among the breastfed infants, they were noted as being asymptomatic or showing little to no symptoms.
Further testing led the researchers to suggest that these effects were the result of the babies being breastfed. The serum samples of both groups had observable cytokine levels. However, those in the breastfed group were much higher. Most noticeably, the breastfed infants had sera with elevated interleukin 10, or IL-10 levels. A significant presence of IL-10 appeared to correspond with reduced levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokine interferon gamma. The researchers believe that this may have lead to the breastfed infants developing a stronger immune response against Giardia infection.
"IL-10 among several components of breast milk that can reduce the inflammatory response to stimuli in the newborn intestine. These components of breast milk can act individually or in harmony with others to control the neonatal immature inflammatory response," they wrote in their study. "The protective effect of breastfeeding against subsequent infections may be explained by its innate immune modulatory effects in the first month of life." (Related: Breast milk the new CANCER cure? Scientists discover tumor-destroying molecules with astonishing properties.)
So in addition to protecting against Giardia infection, breast milk can also play a vital role in the development of a baby’s immune system. In fact, the researchers further noted that implementing breastfeeding programs could "save hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide."
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