Breastfeeding helps to protect mums’ hearts, new study finds

It is well documented that breastfeeding benefits babies. But a new study of Australian mums has found the benefits extend to mothers, too.

According to researchers at the University of Sydney, breastfeeding may significantly help to protect heart health and prevent deaths from cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death for women worldwide.

An Australian study has shown breastfeeding can be of benefit to a woman’s cardiovascular health.Credit:Lea Cstontos (Stocksy)

The researchers analysed the data of more than 100,000 NSW women aged 45 and over, following them for six years. They found mothers who breastfed had a 14 per cent lower risk of developing, and a 34 per cent lower risk of dying from, cardiovascular disease compared with mothers who never breastfed.

The longer the mothers breastfed, the greater the protective benefits were.

Women who breastfed for 12 months reduced their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD) by up to 40 per cent.

The effects were evident even after adjusting for socioeconomic status and lifestyle factors including alcohol intake, smoking status, body weight and consumption of fruit and vegetables.

The study’s lead author, Dr Binh Nguyen, said that, with less than 50 per cent of mothers exclusively breastfeeding at three months and 15 per cent exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months, mothers who can and want to breastfeed should be encouraged to, not just for their child’s long-term health but for their own.

“Breastfeeding may offer long term benefits in terms of cardiovascular health in addition to the already known benefits,” Dr Nguyen said.

Professor Jane Scott from the Public School of Health at Curtin University said: "This is a strong study. It is quite consistent with the research that has been coming out in the last few years…
The strength of this study is that they have controlled for a lot of the variables that are also associated with heart disease."

Recent research has shown breastfeeding may reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Researchers also know breastfeeding improves mothers' glucose and fat metabolism in the short-term and may prevent metabolic syndrome later in life.

It was this emerging evidence around the metabolic effects that piqued Dr Nguyen’s curiosity, providing clues to help explain the findings of this new research, which has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Assocation.

“During pregnancy, metabolic changes occur in a woman’s body to support fetal growth and prepare for lactation," he explained. "Breastfeeding increases metabolic expenditure by ~480 kcal/day, which may enable a more rapid reversal of metabolic changes in pregnancy, including improved insulin sensitivity, lipid metabolism and greater mobilisation of accumulated fat stores.

“This can help reduce maternal risk of cardiovascular disease.”

The idea is that the metabolism "resets" with breastfeeding, but the accumulated visceral fat, insulin resistance and lipid and triglyceride levels of pregnancy remain high among women who don’t breastfeed.

Without good metabolism, we accumulate fats in the arteries and the build up can lead to CVD. Similarly, Nguyen explained, poor glucose metabolism makes us more prone to developing atherosclerosis (a build up of cholesterol plaque in the walls of arteries, causing obstruction of blood flow).

While further research needs to be done to support the hypothesis, Scott says it is "biologically plausible".

"Women lay down about five kilograms of fat stores towards the end of pregnancy. It is an evolutionary thing designed to help them with feeding;  when you breastfeed, you mobilise those stores," Scott explained. "Higher levels of glucose… can be transferred to the fetus to help it grow, but for mothers who don't breastfeed, that can be difficult to shift ."

Several studies have found that, in the first two to three months after giving birth, formula-feeding mothers consumed less than breastfeeding mothers and lost substantially more weight. But after this time weight loss among breastfeeding women increased substantially.

They also lost more weight from the sides of the stomach, thighs and hips, with researchers hypothesising that long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are concentrated in lower body fat, and these fats are mobilised during breastfeeding to support the baby’s brain development.

Whether the benefits articulated in this new research can contribute to long-term maternal health overall "are unclear and require further research” Nguyen said, but one thing is clear: the benefits of breastfeeding extend beyond the baby.

“It’s good for the mum too."

Breastfeeding: how long is recommended?

The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding is up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.

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