Breastfeed longer

Published: Tuesday 30 June 2009

Its positive effects stay on for years

breastfeeding for longer time periods reduces the risk of strokes and heart attacks for the mother, later in life.

100,000 post-menopausal women in the US, who reported at least one live birth in their lifetime, were studied for risk of cardiovascular diseases by a team of researchers. Mothers who breastfed their children for at least a period of one year were found to reduce their chances of suffering from diabetes, hyperlipidemia (abnormal levels of lipids/ fats) and cardiovascular diseases. The women were 10 per cent less likely to develop heart conditions than those who did not breastfeed. Risk of hypertension was reduced 12 per cent and that of cholesterol, 20 per cent.

"Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women. So it is vitally important for us to know how to protect ourselves...We now know that breastfeeding is important for the mother's health as well," stated Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, assistant professor of medicine and obstetrics at the University of Pittsburgh, usa and the lead author of the paper.

The study suggests that breastfeeding stimulates the release of a certin hormone--oxytocin--to protect the mothers' health. Although lactation is known to bring down the levels of gonadal (reproductive) hormones like oestrogen and progesterone, as in the case of menopause, the release of oxytocin is significant. Oxytocin is known to relieve stress. Studies done on coronary heart diseases suggest that the impact of stress increases the chances of heart attacks and strokes. Hence larger the amount of the hormone that is released, more does it help in keeping the mother fit, explained JP Dadich of the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India.

Women undergoing menopause are highly susceptible to cardiovascular diseases. It is the strong impact of oxytocin--released during the years of breastfeeding--that was found to reduce the risk of such diseases even in post-menopausal women, reported the study in the American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (Vol 113 No 15). However, the benefits of breastfeeding appear to fade as women reach 70, said the researchers.

It is also estimated that lactation helps burn 480 kilocalories per day. Hence women who breastfeed lose more weight during the postpartum period (the period right after birth) than those who don't. Regular lactation has shown to improve glucose tolerance, which in turn, helps lower risk of diabetes, and lipid metabolism (degradation of fats).

"This adds to the evidence of the benefits of breastfeeding. In the US they leave breastfeeding earlier. Had the study been conducted over women who breastfed for longer than a year the results would be more pronounced. This study should be publicized to promote breastfeeding worldwide," said Arun Gupta of the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India.

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