Science You Can Use: More and more studies show that breastfeeding is important to your heart and metabolic health

A new study from Oxford University out last week shows that mothers who breastfeed have lower body mass index, even into their 50’s.

The amount was modest (1% reduction in BMI for every six months of breastfeeding), but it points to a critical set of effects breastfeeding appears to have on women’s long term health.

You’ve probably heard that breastfeeding is associated with lowered risk of breast cancer, but a recent string of studies points to an association with another critical area of women’s health.  For lack of a better term, let’s call it cardiovascular and metabolic health.

Here are some of the other recent studies which have shown results in this area of women’s health:

  • 2008: A study in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology reports that breastfeeding is associated with a decrease in risk for metabolic syndrome in mothers.  Metabolic syndrome is a combination of factors including abdominal obesity, high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance, high inflammatory state.  These factors significantly increase the risk of heart attack and Type II diabetes.
  • 2011:  A study published in Diabetes finds that breastfeeding is associated with higher maternal ghrelin and pancreatic peptide YY levels at three years postpartum – risk factors for metabolic disease.

Put in the context of this growing body of research, the most recent study on body mass index adds more weight (ahem) to the concept that breastfeeding is important to our health as we age.  In fact, the authors of this study estimate that lowering body mass index by the amount attributed to six months of breastfeeding would save 10,000 lives over ten years in the U.K. alone.

Of course, breastfeeding is not a magic bullet – long term health is achieved and maintained through a number of behaviors, including exercise and good nutrition.  But this growing body of research does suggest that engaging in the historically and physically normal act of breastfeeding – a behavior our bodies are, after all, “expecting” us to do – is one important piece of achieving physiologically normal cardiovascular and metabolic health as we move through life.

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