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Immunology and breast milk

posted Oct 14, 2009, 11:11 PM by Melissa Bugeja   [ updated Mar 26, 2015, 4:43 AM ]
When a baby is born her immune system is very immature.  In fact the immune system of a baby is not at its full strength before the child is 5 years old.  And while not the norm, it is why UNICEF and WHO both advise breastfeeding to carry on for 2 years and beyond.

All human babies receive some coverage in advance of birth. During pregnancy, the mother passes antibodies to her fetus through the placenta. These proteins circulate in the infant’s blood for weeks to months after birth, neutralizing microbes or marking them for destruction by phagocytes-immune cells that consume and break down bacteria, viruses and cellular debris. But breast-fed infants gain extra protection from antibodies, other proteins and immune cells in human milk. - Jack Newman


Breastmilk is full of antibodies (immunoglobulins)  and other cells (white blood cells) that have been shown they help protect the infant from various infections and disease; including ear infections, upper and lower respiratory tract infections, allergies, intestinal disorders, colds, viruses, staph, strep and e coli infections, diabetes, meningitis, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, salmonella and many, many more.

The antibodies, made by our bodies are very specific molecules that fight against illnesses.  These antibodies are than delivered to the baby through breastmilk.  So that your infant will now have immunity of all the diseases you have been yourself exposed to.  Not only that, but if your baby gets in contact with something which you have not been exposed to, at the next feeding he will transmit it to you while nursing and your body will in turn produce antibodies which of course are than delivered back to the baby. - And that is why we refer to breast milk as liquid gold - because our awesome system is impossible to beat!

One of the most important antibody produced by breastmilk is secretory IgA.  The secretory IgA molecules passed to the nursing baby protect against infection agents that the infant is most likely to get in contact with during the first weeks of life.  The antibodies  delivered to the infant ignore useful bacteria normally found in the gut. This flora serves to crowd out the growth of harmful organisms, thus providing another measure of resistance. -Secretory IgA molecules further keep an infant from harm in that, unlike most other antibodies, they ward off disease without causing inflammation-a process in which various chemicals destroy microbes but potentially hurt healthy tissue. In an infant’s developing gut, the mucosal membrane is extremely delicate, and an excess of these chemicals can do considerable damage. Interestingly, secretory IgA can probably protect mucosal surfaces other than those in the gut. - Jack Newman

Human milk is a complex fluid that contains more than 200 recognized constituents (see Blanc, 1981). The number of recognized constituents has increased as analytic techniques have been improved. 

Classes of Constituents in Human Milk

Protein and Nonprotein Nitrogen Compounds

Carbohydrates

Proteins

Lactose

Caseins

Oligosaccharides

α-Lactalbumin

Bifidus factors

Lactoferrin

Glycopeptides

Secretory IgA and other immunoglobulins

Lipids

β-Lactoglobulin

Triglycerides

Lysozyme

Fatty acids

Enzymes

Phospholipids

Hormones

Sterols and hydrocarbons

Growth factors

Fat-soluble vitamins

Nonprotein Nitrogen Compounds

A and carotene

Urea

D

Creatine

E

Creatinine

K

Uric acid

Minerals

Glucosamine

Macronutrient Elements

α-Amino nitrogen

Calcium

Nucleic acids

Phosphorus

Nucleotides

Magnesium

Polyamines

Potassium

Water-Soluble Vitamins

Sodium

Thiamin

Chlorine

Riboflavin

Sulfur

Niacin

Trace Elements

Pantothenic acid

Iodine

Biotin

Iron

Folate

Copper

Vitamin B6

Zinc

Vitamin B12

Manganese

Vitamin C

Selenium

Inositol

Chromium

Choline

Cobalt

Cells

 

Leukocytes

 

Epithelial cells

 

and properties can be found in several recent review articles and books (e.g., Blanc, 1981; Carlson, 1985; Gaull et al., 1982; Goldman et al., 1987; Goldman and Goldblum, 1990; Hamosh and Goldman, 1986; Jensen, 1989; Jensen and Neville, 1985; Koldovskỳ, 1989; Lönnerdal, 1985a, 1986a; Picciano, 1984a, 1985; Ruegg and Blanc, 1982).

Nutrition during Lactation - Institute of Medicine


Other Resources:

Immunological Protection by Kahtryn Orlinsky


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