By Patti Neighmond
Doctors say breastfeeding is good for babies because it strengthens their immune systems and helps them fight off germs. Now researchers say breastfeeding can also reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease in moms, years later.
It's not clear exactly why that is, but work by Kaiser Permanente's Division of Research in Oakland, California suggests a protective effect of breastfeeding on moms. The findings were just published online by the medical journal Diabetes.
Women who breastfed for one to five months reduced their future risk for metabolic syndrome by 39 percent, compared with mothers who didn't. The researchers checked the health status of women for as long as 20 years.
Generally speaking, metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors that predispose people to both diabetes and heart disease, such as excessive belly fat, high cholesterol, elevated triglycerides and high blood pressure.
Women who breastfed longer did even better. The risk of metabolic syndrome was lowered by 56 percent in women who breastfed for more than nine months. Among women who developed diabetes during pregnancy, the benefit reduced their future risk of the metabolic syndrome even more, by 44 to 86 percent, depending on how many months they breastfed.
Earlier studies have shown some protective associations between breastfeeding and metabolic syndrome but this is the first to tally up the so many specifics about metabolic syndrome both before pregnancy and years later.
Epidemiologist Erica Gunderson, the study's lead author, says she can't pinpoint why breastfeeding seems to be protective but she has some ideas.
"We know women who are lactating have better sugar control and metabolize fuels better without as much stress on their system," she says. It could also be that breastfeeding reduces abdominal fat, she says.
In the study, over 90 percent of the women who were later diagnosed with metabolic syndrome had excess abdominal fat.
Gunderson says that lactation may have a role in actually decreasing belly fat, because the process of lactation relies more on hip and thigh fat to produce milk, than it does on abdominal fat.