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Breast milk compound may build baby’s immunity

U. ILLINOIS (US) — A key component of breast milk promotes good bacteria in growing babies’ digestive tracts, but is absent from infant formula, researchers say.

Human milk oligosaccharides, or HMO, produce short-chain fatty acids that feed a beneficial microbial population in the infant gut. Not only that, the bacterial composition adjusts as the baby grows older and his or her needs change.

Even though HMO are a major component of human milk, present in higher concentration than protein, many of their actions in the infant are not well understood. Furthermore, they’re virtually absent from infant formula. The scientists wanted to find out what formula-fed babies were missing.

“We refer to HMO as the fiber of human milk because we don’t have the enzymes to break down these compounds. They pass into the large intestine where the bacteria digest them.

“We’re curious about the role they play in the development of the breast-fed infant’s gut bacteria because the bacteria found in the guts of formula-fed infants is different,” says Sharon Donovan, professor in nutrition and health at the University of Illinois.

With this study, Donovan is gaining insight into the mystery. For the first time, scientists have shown that a complex mixture of HMO and a single HMO component produce patterns of short-chain fatty acids that change as the infant gets older.

A healthy microbiome has both short- and long-term effects on an infant’s health. In the short term, beneficial bacteria protect the infant from infection by harmful bacteria. In the long term, beneficial bacteria strengthen the immune system so that it can fend off chronic health problems like food allergies and asthma, she says.

In the study, breast milk was obtained from mothers of preterm infants at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, and the HMO were isolated and analyzed. The scientists tested bacteria from 9- and 17-day-old sow-reared and formula-fed piglets. Because piglets grow so rapidly, these ages reflect approximately three- and six-month-old human infants.

The colon bacteria were added to test tubes containing HMO and two prebiotics commonly used in infant formulas. These mixtures were allowed to ferment and then sampled to see how the bacterial population was changing over time and what products were being produced by the bacteria.

“When the HMOs were introduced, the bacteria produced short-chain fatty acids, at some cases at higher levels than other prebiotics now used in infant formula. The short-chain fatty acids can be used as a fuel source for beneficial bacteria and also affect gastrointestinal development and pH in the gut, which reduces the number of disease-causing pathogens,” she says.

Further, different HMOs produced different patterns of short-chain fatty acids, and the composition of bacteria in the gut changed over time. “It was distinctly different at 9 vs. 17 days, making it likely that the functions of HMO change as the human infant gets older,” she says.

According to Donovan, HMO are critically important in understanding how breastfeeding protects babies.

“Several companies are now able to synthesize HMO, and in the future, we may be able to use them to improve infant formula. There’s evidence that these compounds can bind to receptors on immune cells and, to our knowledge, no current prebiotic ingredient can do that,” she says.

The study was published in the April issue of the Journal of Nutrition. Additional co-authors contributed from the University of Illinois. Funding was provided by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

More news from University of Illinois: http://www.aces.uiuc.edu/news/

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3 Comments

  1. Jo Ann Hattner MPH RD

    Kudos to the researcher Sharon Donovan as this is such an important and vital area of research. Breast milk is liquid gold and we are still learning about it’s individual components and the vital role they play.

  2. Dana

    Great article! Although some women are unable to breastfeed, those who can and do are positively benefiting the health of their babies. There is consensus among all major health care providers that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months after a child is born is best for the health of both infants and mothers.

    Hospitals shouldn’t give out free infant formula packages because they have been shown to discourage breastfeeding, and even to be given out to moms who intend to breastfeed in a direct attempt to change their path and increase profits. Hospitals should stop subverting their own health messaging by pushing infant formula on new mothers. When formula is necessary, women should be able to decide for themselves which brand to use.

    http://www.citizen.org/pressroom/pressroomredirect.cfm?ID=3578

  3. Jennifer Bane

    Indeed, Breast milk is more beneficial for babies in early days of his life. Breast milk contains various antibodies which is lack in formula powdered milk that’s why it is not that much beneficial for child in his early days of life. But in the case when baby is not comfortable with breastfeeding, formula milk is the best option. This Baby formula for child is suitable from birth to the child of age 2. You can also mixed it with breast milk or try it in combination with breast feeding for optimum results.

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