Research led by the University of Birmingham and Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust has revealed new insight into the biological mechanisms of the long-term positive health effects of breastfeeding in preventing disorders of the immune system in later life.
Breastfeeding is known to be associated with better health outcomes in infancy and throughout adulthood, and previous research has shown that babies receiving breastmilk are less likely to develop asthma, obesity, and autoimmune diseases later in life compared to those who are exclusively formula fed.
However, up until now, the immunological mechanisms responsible for these effects have been very poorly understood. In this new study, researchers have for the first time discovered that a specific type of immune cells — called regulatory T cells — expand in the first three weeks of life in breastfed human babies and are nearly twice as abundant as in formula fed babies. These cells also control the baby’s immune response against maternal cells transferred with breastmilk and help reduce inflammation.
Moreover, the research — supported by the National Institute for Health Research’s Surgical Reconstruction and Microbiology Research Centre (NIHR SRMRC) — showed that specific bacteria, called Veillonella and Gemella, which support the function of regulatory T cells, are more abundant in the gut of breastfed babies.
The results of the study, published in Allergy, emphasize the importance of breastfeeding, say the researchers.
Senior author Gergely Toldi, researcher at the University of Birmingham and consultant neonatologist at Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The influence of the type of milk received on the development of the immune response has not previously been studied in the first few weeks of life.
“Prior to our research the outstanding importance and the early involvement of this specific cell type in breastfed babies was unknown.
“We hope this invaluable new insight will lead to an increase in rates of breastfeeding and will see more babies benefit from the advantages of receiving breastmilk.
“Furthermore, we hope for those babies who are formula fed, these results will contribute to optimizing the composition of formula milk in order to exploit these immunological mechanisms.
“We are very grateful for the mums and babies who contributed to this special project.”
The study is the culmination of a unique three-year research project analyzing data from 38 healthy mothers and their healthy babies. Small amounts of blood and stool samples were collected at birth at Birmingham Women’s Hospital and then again later during home visits when the babies were three weeks old. Sixteen out of the 38 babies (42%) were exclusively breastfed for the duration of the study, while nine babies received mixed feeding, and 13 babies were exclusively formula-fed.
The researchers hope to now further study this biological mechanism in sick and pre-term newborn babies who have developed inflammatory complications.
1. Wood et al. Breastfeeding promotes early neonatal regulatory T cell expansion and immune tolerance of non-inherited maternal antigens. Allergy, 2021 DOI: 10.1111/all.14736
Razi Berry is the founder and publisher of the journal Naturopathic Doctor News & Review, which has been in print since 2005, and the premier consumer-faced website of naturopathic medicine, NaturalPath. She is the host of The Love is Medicine Project docuseries, The Natural Cancer Prevention Summit, The Heart Revolution-Heal, Empower and Follow Your Heart, and the popular 10-week Sugar Free Summer program. From a near death experience as a young girl that healed her failing heart, to later overcoming infertility and chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia through naturopathic medicine, Razi has lived the mind/body healing paradigm. Her projects uniquely capture the tradition and philosophy of naturopathy: The healing power of nature, the vital life force in every living thing and the undeniable role that science and mind/body medicine have in creating health and overcoming dis-ease. You can follow Razi on social media: Facebook at Razi Berry, Instagram at Razi.Berry and join the Love is Medicine group to explore the convergence of love and health. Look for more, and listen to more Love is Medicine podcast episodes here.