A study published in the Journal Mucosal Immunology, showed how human breast milk, which provides essential nutrients and antibodies to newborns, also serves as a reservoir for bio-molecules that help clear infections, reduce inflammation, combat pain and heal wounds.
Breast milk is always better than formula because it provides critical nutrients and a diverse array of antioxidant protection as well.
Earlier studies have shown that breast milk lowers the incidence of diarrhea, influenza and respiratory infections during infancy, while protecting against the later development of allergies, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other illnesses.
Some studies have even suggest that children up to the age of one that are fed beverages other than breast milk are at risk of becoming malnourished.
Babies fed a dairy-based formula grow up to have higher blood pressure than babies who are breast-fed, British researchers reported.
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 its needs change. HMO is virtually absent from infant formula.
There is increasing evidence of the local effects within the gastro intestinal tract and the systemic functions of HMO including immune regulatory and anti-inflammatory effects.
"Finding a reservoir of these inflammation-resolving molecules at bioactive levels was a big surprise for us," said co-corresponding author Charles Serhan from Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) in Boston, US.
Using a comprehensive profiling technique, the team was able to uncover a milieu of molecules known as specialised pro-resolving mediators (SPMs) in human breast milk and found that each of these molecules helped resolve inflammation and stimulate immune response in preclinical models.
The team uncovered a profiling signature consisting of 20 molecules with pro-resolving properties.
Certain SPMs have been detected in breast milk before, but this is the first time that such a wide variety of bioactive molecules have been uncovered, the researchers said.
The team also tested human milk samples from participants with mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue that causes pain and inflammation.
They found that SPM levels were much lower in milk from mastitis and did not resolve inflammation and infection to the degree that breast milk from non-mastitis samples did.
The team also tested cow's milk and infant formula where they could not detect SPM levels.
"One of the problems with formula is that it contains no DHA, no cholesterol, no lipase, no lactoferin, no lysozymes, no live white cells, etc and this all has an overall effect on the therapeutic potential and absorption on baby," said doula and breast feeding specialist Misha Schlereth.
"Our results suggest a role for SPM in modulating inflammation, infection and stimulating resolution during early immune development, and further reinforce the importance of human breast milk for infants," Serhan explained.
Though more research is needed, Serhan says the findings add to the understanding of breast milk's benefits. "It's important for mothers to strongly consider breast feeding if it's at all possible," says Serhan. "Artificial formula would be deficient in these types of molecules."
Natasha Longo has a master's degree in nutrition and is a certified fitness and nutritional counselor. She has consulted on public health policy and procurement in Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland, England and Germany.