Lack of Breastfeeding is a Key Factor in Autoimmune & Allergy Pandemic

By William Parker, PhD, Associate Professor of Surgery, Duke University School of Medicine

Post-industrial cultures face a barrage of pandemics of allergic and autoimmune diseases.  (Pandemics are epidemics which occur in multiple regions of the planet simultaneously.) These pandemics involve a hyperactive immune system which attacks harmless environmental and self-derived targets, producing allergic and autoimmune diseases, respectively.

The shocking fact is that, for the most part, we know exactly why this happens. These pandemics are preventable.

Each autoimmune disease and each allergic disease has three important contributors. The first is called the trigger. The second is genetics. The third is the actual cause of the allergic and/or autoimmune disease. Most of the triggers and the genetics occur (and have occurred for many generations) without the pandemics, so these are not the actual cause, per se. Thus, even though the triggers and the genetics are important, they are not the cause. This is fortunate, since there is nothing we can do about genetics, and it is generally impossible to avoid all triggers which might stimulate the onset of allergy and autoimmune diseases. We simply can’t live in a sterile bubble and avoid every dust mite allergen, mold spore, virus and pollen grain on the planet.

This leads us to the third factor behind pandemics of allergic and autoimmune disease. This is the actual cause. This cause involves changes in our culture so that our genetics do not match our environment. These changes have profoundly affected the “ecosystem of the human body”, which we call the human biome.  We know of four primary ways that we have altered the ecosystem of the human body, making it susceptible to allergic and autoimmune disease.

  1. Depletion of “keystone” species from the ecosystem of the human body affects both allergic and autoimmune disease. The introduction of toilets, water treatment facilities, and modern medicine into Western culture had some expected results. We got rid of many infectious diseases and parasites. Unfortunately, this nice result had some unexpected consequences: Our immune systems are now essentially “bored”, and like teenagers with nothing to do, are out causing trouble. The species we lost from our ecosystem turned out to be “keystone”: without them, the system gets unbalanced. There is very little to be done about this at the present time by the typical person. We absolutely do not recommend that people stop good hygiene practices. Washing your hands and your baby prevents the spread of pathogens, and this is important. On top of that, you can’t get the keystone organisms (sometimes called “old friends”) that the immune system really misses by practicing sloppy hygiene. Those keystone species are long gone from our environment.  Short of obtaining some black-market organisms of unknown quality in a desperate, death-defying act, we must wait on modern medicine to fix this problem by re-introducing the right organisms in a controlled and safe fashion. Fortunately, the other three factors listed below can be controlled by the typical individual. Because this first factor is out of our control, it is extremely important to control the other three. We already have this one strike against us, and we don’t need any more.
  2. Psychological stress is well recognized as a factor that influences both allergic and autoimmune disease. It is unclear whether Western culture is particularly prone to psychological stress compared to traditional (agrarian and hunter-gatherer) cultures, but it is clear that increased psychological stress is bad for our immune health. It pays to reduce our psychological stress.
  3. Vitamin D deficiency, like the other factors described above, affects both allergic and autoimmune conditions. Inadequate levels of vitamin D were probably relatively rare before the industrial revolution, when sunlight was the main source of light for our labor, but this problem now affects over half the population due to the use of indoor lighting and sunscreen. Sporadic exposure to the sun which causes severe sunburn and subsequent skin cancer is not a good option.  Fortunately, we don’t need to move our offices out of the air-conditioning to get our vitamin D.  Supplements are available in the grocery store. It pays to keep our vitamin D levels up.
  4. Deprivation from mother’s milk is yet another factor which affects both allergic and autoimmune disease. By the time our babies are born, they were already exposed to an environment (the womb) affected by depletion of keystone species. Our babies may have also been exposed to an environment where psychological stress and inadequacy of vitamin D have affected their immune system. To be deprived of breast milk adds further to the potential milieu of insults suffered by the immune system.
Human milk is awash in secretory IgA (sIgA) an antibody that floods the newborn’s mucous membranes (gut, lungs, etc.), helps build the healthy biofilm, and acts as the first line of defense in fighting infection and disease. Image courtesy Science Creative Quarterly.*

Research in my lab at Duke has shown very large differences between breast milk and baby formulas in terms of how they help a baby’s healthy, necessary bacteria grow. Simply put, if you mix normal bacteria with breast milk in a test tube, the bacteria do the normal things that they would do in your baby. If you mix the same exact bacteria with baby formula in a test tube, the bacteria grow in a completely different way. The normal mode of bacterial growth in the gut is to form protective films of living bacteria we call “biofilms”. Mother’s milk helps this happen. Infant formulas, on the other hand, induce the bacteria into prolific growth as single, free-floating cells. The bacteria grow very fast, but they remain nomadic and don’t stick together. The difference is huge and can easily be seen in a test tube with a simple experiment. Infant formulas are just not the same as mother’s milk in terms of how they affect healthy bacterial growth.

We know that the development of our baby’s immune system is dependent on the friendly bacteria in our baby, and now we know how much the normal growth of this friendly bacteria depends on breast milk. With this in mind, it seems more than worthwhile to avoid yet another risk factor. It pays to give our babies breast milk.

Thus, we see that our environment has changed. Just as obesity has become pandemic because we no longer need exercise to survive and because extremely rich food is widely available, so have pandemics of immune disease emerged because of changes in our environment. Fortunately, we can compensate for most of these changes, and it is hoped that modern medicine will soon take care of the loss of keystone species that affects us all even if we do our best to control all other factors.


Much of this information is taken from a recent review entitled “A prescription for clinical immunology: The pills are available and ready for testing.”  (10-pages with 50 references: Current Medical Research and Opinion, 28:1193-1202) Much of this information is also available in an article entitled “Reconstitution of the human biome as the most reasonable solution for epidemics of allergic and autoimmune diseases.” (11 pages with 109 references: Medical Hypotheses,77:494-504.)

The author, William Parker, is an immunologist at Duke University who has published numerous peer-reviewed papers describing the interaction between the immune system and the environment. The ideas that William presents here were developed in collaboration with a diverse team of scientists that includes Michael Muehlenbein, an anthropologist, Sarah Perkins, a parisitologist, and Staci Bilbo, a neurobiologist.

*image inserted by Best for Babes.  For microscopic images of human milk vs. cows milk vs. infant formula, see these pictures at and

8 thoughts on “Lack of Breastfeeding is a Key Factor in Autoimmune & Allergy Pandemic

  1. Very interesting research. I have an autoimmune disorder, and do tons of research on the subject. I just wanted to chime in and add a few more probable causes to this list.
    I was breastfed for two years, but ended-up with Celiac disease, fibromyalgia, and early stages of joint deterioration in my 20s. After 10 years of doctors not knowing how to treat me, I reversed my condition by going on a Paleo diet, and then got even more assistance from a Naturopathic doctor who helped me with fine-tuning what nutrients I needed.
    In addition to what you listed above, the sudden and dramatic change in what we eat since the industrial revolution has played a huge part in the deterioration of our gut integrity and thus our immune systems. The prevalence of damaging omega 6 fats, the cutting out of nutrient-rich and animal fats (a source of Vitamin D), increase in grain consumption (high in gut-damaging lectins), pesticides in our food, and now the introduction of the most damaging of all, genetically modified foods, has created a perfect storm of gut dysfunction.

    I am only 33 years old, and I have many, many friends and family with Lupus, Celiac, Crohon’s, mystery illnesses, and gluten sensitivity. This is a pandemic we have on our hands. I think all of these things are also causing our high rates of Autism.
    Luckily, a few of my friends have also seen dramatic improvement by going on the same diet I went on, and working with a doctor to determine what nutrients they were deficient in.

    Thank you so much for doing research into this. If you want to read more about the kind of diet I went on to heal myself, please check out this website, this practitioner uses the same methods as my doctor did to help treat me. More people should know how to cure themselves and how to prevent it in the next generation!


    1. Like Chris my husband has an auto-immune disease (ulcerative colitis in his case). His mother nursed him for 7 months.

      I would add a plant-based diet to the list of things that people can do to alleviate allergies and auto-immune diseases. Focusing on nutrition has radically changed our health.

      I am hoping that nursing our babies as long as I can, will give them a boost as well. But I know it may not keep them from getting disease if we do not live a better lifestyle.


      1. I believe the key takeaway between both Chris and Melissa is to avoid a diet heavy on simple carbohydrates and sugar. Both plant and meat diets can be productive in reducing autoimmune flare ups, but is a hard goal to achieve with the popular western diet consisting of an overwhelming amount of sugar and carbohydrates.


    2. Everyone tells me to put cereal in my babies bottle. I exclusively bf so I don’t even use bottles, but this is evidently common practice. There need to be control groups of breastfeeding exclusively vs pumping and supplementing with anything in order to have a true indication. But to me it makes sense that giving a baby cereal before their intestines and digestive system are fully intact could cause celiac and other autoimmune diseases to follow.


      1. Actually, I work with 8 infants every day for the government. We are regulated by the USDA, NAEYC and military regulations. In no way should you put cereal in your babies bottle, unless a doctor orders it for acid reflux. It is a form of force feeding, it leads to obesity, and it’s not necessary. My children are in their 30’s and I was told to put cereal in their bottles, which I did. They have had stomach issues since they were babies, they were both overweight and had to fight to lose weight. If you breastfeed, you will need to feed more often. Just a fact. Try to stay away from adding food unless the doctor orders it. If you’re not producing milk, try adding a tablespoon of coconut oil to your diet daily. Don’t cook it. It’s kind of gross but you can add it to coffee, warm cereal, or just take it from the spoon. Many of my mothers have done this and after a couple of days, they are producing much more milk. Good luck


  2. We generally consider environmental factors with ancient origins that cause disease (like mold and food allergens) to be “triggers”. Certainly health can be improved if individuals avoid the triggers that make them sick. This needs to be done, and is the only choice for many people today. However, the goal for us is to normalize the immune system so that the triggers for disease that we so often see today are no longer triggers for disease. In other words, we want to induce a fundamental shift in our immune system so that we don’t get sick so easy after exposure to common substances. That is the end goal.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s