A first-of-its-kind study found that the composition and nutrients of breastmilk can change with the seasons. The study highlighted changes in not only breastmilk sugars but also gut microbiota, health and growth in the same mother-baby pairs over time.
Published in the January issue of Scientific Reports and designed and co-authored by Robin Bernstein, an anthropology professor at University of Colorado, Bolder, the study concluded that the seasonal changes in a mother’s environment, and therefore, diet can have a significant impact on sugars found in breastmilk. This can impact the baby’s gut bacteria and the baby’s overall health since those bacteria feed off the sugars naturally present in breastmilk.
Co-authored by researchers at the University of California, Davis and the Medical Research Council from the United Kingdom, the study focused on mothers in Gambia and analyzed samples from 33 mother and baby pairs at four, 16 and 20 weeks postpartum. During the wet season, when there is less food and more stress, breastmilk contained about 20 percent fewer milk oligosaccharides – complex sugars that feed a baby’s gut bacteria.
Babies exposed to more sugar lacto-N-fucopentaose tended to be sick less, those with more sugar 3′- sialyllactose showed healthier growth patterns and baby’s with higher levels of Dialister, Prevotella and Bifidobacteria bacteria had higher levels of intestinal inflammation.
“This study helps us better understand how a woman’s environment might influence the composition of her milk and how the composition of her milk might have real-life consequences for her baby,” said Bernstein in an interview with the university newspaper.
Ultimately more studies will be needed to truely conclusive cause and effect relationship. However, the authors are hopeful that future studies could lead to supplements that would help nursing mothers in challenging environments ensure their babies are getting the healthiest breastmilk.