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Health & Wellness

New study concludes breastfeeding may reduce a mother’s risk of heart disease and stroke

A mother breastfeeds.
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Dr. Herd says breastfeeding is also known to decrease a mother's risk of diabetes and of developing ovarian cancer.

The study analyzed health data for more than a million women from eight studies conducted between 1986 and 2009 in the U.S., Australia, China, Norway, Japan, and one multinational study.

Dr. Jay Herd, an OB-GYN and chief medical officer at Baylor Scott and White All Saints, explained to KERA’s Sam Baker why he doesn't think the news surprised doctors.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

Why the study results didn’t surprise Herd

Most of us kind of knew that breastfeeding decreases the risk of diabetes in the mom and other things that are linked later on to death due to heart disease.

But does anyone know why breastfeeding has that effect?

Not that I know of.

There are known reasons why breastfeeding reduces the risk in the mom of developing ovarian cancer by decreasing ovulation. When women breastfeed, they usually don't ovulate. So, by decreasing ovulation, you can decrease ovarian cancer, and that's been shown.

There's decreased risk of breast cancer in women who breastfeed by decreasing the amount of long-term estrogen from ovulation.

And so theoretically, physiologically, logically, it makes sense on those. Although there are some theories, I'm not sure we really know why it decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

It's not the act of breastfeeding itself or maybe some hormone or something released when breastfeeding?

It could be a combination of factors breastfeeding. You have production of different hormones by the brain to continue the breastfeeding, and those hormones may act both locally and systemically to decrease women's risk of developing these diseases. And then there also could be just the emotional decrease in stress and the bonding that may decrease the risk of heart disease.

Does breastfeeding potentially reduce stress? 

What we know from another study many years ago is that there is better bonding with breastfeeding and mother and child. That could decrease stress and stress hormones and therefore have an effect that way. 

If there's so much to gain from breastfeeding, why don't more women do it?

That's the biggest question we have. We try as physicians, as obstetricians, even from the very first visit. I try to encourage my patients to consider breastfeeding after delivery and go over the benefits for both the baby and the mother. I think there are some cultural differences where in some cultures it's thought of, maybe, in a way that's not favorable.

Which groups, for instance? 

Well, you can look at data. There are some families, some socioeconomic groups, and also some racial biases, too, although that's easily overcome with education and discussion and positive reinforcement.

It makes you wonder with so many physical advantages to breastfeeding, are there any physical disadvantages to it? 

There's the perceived disadvantage of physical appearance, I guess. But I think the benefits outweigh those perceived risks.

There have been some reports of some back, shoulder, and wrist pain, or maybe even bone loss, as a result of breastfeeding? 

Because of the hypo-estrogenic state, which means lower estrogen with breastfeeding. That's why it decreases the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. There is a slight increase in bone loss, but you can do things like vitamin D supplementation, exercise, and things to counteract that.

All I hope is that by getting this out, we can encourage more mothers to consider it. It's so the body was made for. That’s what I tell my patients. It’s free, and on top of that, there are medical and emotional benefits.

RESOURCES:

Why Some Women Decide Not to Breastfeed

Breastfeeding may reduce mom's risk of heart disease and stroke

AHA Study: Breastfeeding & Cardiovascular Risk

2004 Study

CDC: Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding

Side Effects of Breastfeeding

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at sbaker@kera.org. You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.