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Breast-Feeding Boost
Nursing May Help Mothers Improve Heart Health

Studies have long touted the benefits of breast-feeding for infants, including stronger immune systems and lower risk of asthma, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. But babies aren’t the only ones benefiting; nursing also appears to provide health benefits for moms.

Research suggests women who breast-feed have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancers. The longer women nurse, whether with one child or over the course of several, the lower their risk.

More recently, studies have found that breast-feeding also helps the mother’s heart—beyond nurturing its bond with baby, that is.

Breast-feeding has been associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

But the mechanism behind how that might happen is a matter of debate.

It’s possibly linked to the release of the hormone oxytocin, which relaxes blood vessels, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at New York University.

“It may also very well be that many breast-feeding mothers have a healthier lifestyle overall,” she says.

These women may eat more healthfully and exercise regularly, and “they make healthier choices in general, not only for their babies but for themselves,” she says.

Another theory stems from the large number of calories burned during breast-feeding.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found nursing may help mothers lower their risk of heart attack and stroke long after giving birth. The study didn’t explain the reason behind the link, but researchers noted that breast-feeding helps women lose pregnancy-related weight, including fat reserves that help fuel fetal growth. This process may help “reset” the body’s metabolism after giving birth.

But for the most part, Goldberg says, “the jury is still out on the specific reasons why breast-feeding lowers risk of heart disease.”

None of the research suggests that women who can’t or choose not to breast-feed are more likely to develop heart issues, Goldberg says.

“There are many other things you can do to improve your heart health,” she says. “Think about it: Every time you take your baby for a walk, you’re exercising yourself, too.”

A 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 4 out of 5 babies are breast-fed after birth, although only one-half of all infants are still breast-fed at 6 months.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months, then continued nursing with the introduction of foods through the rest of the first year and thereafter for as long as mother and baby desire.

For women who don’t know whether they want to breast-feed, just knowing the option may improve their heart health could tip the scale, says Lisa Hollier, MD, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

It could be especially appealing for women who develop pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia or gestational diabetes, since those conditions can mean a significantly increased lifetime risk of CVD.

“Breast-feeding would be beneficial for these women,” says Hollier, chief medical officer for obstetrics and gynecology at Texas Children’s Health Plan in Houston. “Our counseling of women after delivery following this type of pregnancy complication really should include information about the protective association between breast-feeding and metabolic disease and cardiovascular disease.”

Women should still make healthful lifestyle decisions, such as eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and reducing stress, to reduce their risk, Hollier says.

“But if you were on the fence about breast-feeding,” she says, “this is just one other thing that would add to your decision.”

— Source: American Heart Association News