Infant Formula Alters Gut Microbiome

infant formula

Story at-a-glance -

  • Variety and health of your gut bacteria are associated with genetic expression and interaction with your immune system; when unsupported it may lead to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases
  • Research links feeding infant formula to a change in gut bacteria with a proliferation of those more commonly found in older children and adults, increasing the infant’s risk of obesity
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data indicating 99 percent of children between ages 1 and 2 are eating 7 teaspoons of added sugar a day, even greater than the highest level thought to be safe for adults
  • Breastfeeding has benefits for both child and mother, including supporting a child’s healthy gut microbiome, reduction in sudden infant death syndrome, improved cognitive development and, for the mother, reduced rates of breast and ovarian cancer, cardiovascular disease and postpartum depression

By Dr. Mercola

In recent years, science has come to realize your gut microbiome is a significant factor driving genetic expression and supporting your immune system. Your body has nearly 1,000 different species of bacteria living in it and on it, as well as millions of viruses. Each of these organisms perform a multitude of functions, and need to be properly balanced and cared for in order to maintain good health.1

Research has linked the variety and makeup of your gut microbiome to specific health benefits and health conditions, including the elimination of chemical toxins, mental health,2 obesity,3 Types 1 and 2 diabetes4 and brain diseases. The microbes in your gut may influence your immune response to a number of environmental pathogens as well as pharmaceutical drugs, including vaccinations.

One of the easiest ways to support or decimate your microbiome is through your diet. Research supports eating fermented foods5 and fiber6 to promote a healthy gut microbiome. Now, recent research has found an association between feeding infants formula and a change in gut microbiome that may lead to obesity.7

Food Has an Impact on Gut Bacteria

As you may have suspected, and research has confirmed, the food children eat impacts their gut microbiome and consequently their immune system and risk for obesity. A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics8 looked at how bacteria in an infant's digestive system affects the burning and storage of fat, and how the infant body uses energy.

Researchers gathered data from the Canadian Health Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) study, focusing on the first year for more than 1,000 infants at four different sites.9 Mothers reported the amount of breastfeeding, when formula was introduced and when solid food was introduced to the infant. Confounding factors such as gender, birth weight, antibiotics, maternal smoking and more, were included. Stool samples collected from the infants at 3 to 4 months and again at 12 months were tested for a variety of gut bacteria.

By age 3 months, nearly half the women were exclusively breastfeeding their infants, 16 percent fed only formula and approximately 33 percent fed a combination of breastmilk and formula.10 Data from stool samples revealed the highest level of beneficial bacteria at 3 months and at 1 year was found in infants who were exclusively breastfed. Infants who were exclusively formula-fed had the least variety of bacteria and a proliferation of microbes more commonly found in older children and adults.

What’s more, infants who were exclusively formula-fed had nearly double the risk of becoming overweight as compared to those who were exclusively breastfed. Those who were fed both breastmilk and formula had a lower risk than those exclusively formula-fed, but they still had a 60 percent greater risk of becoming overweight than exclusively breastfed babies.

Lead author Meghan Azad, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, commented that breast milk contains complex sugars needed to feed specific types of bacteria, which in turn affects how a child's body burns and stores fat.11

Interestingly, most of the mothers in the group delivered vaginally, which is known to seed a baby's digestive system with beneficial bacteria, and 96 percent of the mothers were breastfeeding immediately after birth. This number dropped to 54 percent by three months.12 In breastfed infants, the beneficial bacteria Bifidobacterium were introduced into the infant's gut helping to digest oligosaccharides present in the breastmilk.

Once solid foods were introduced, microbiomes more closely resembling adult varieties began to grow. The study found when a more adult variety of gut microbiota was present at an earlier age, it was associated with an increased risk of obesity.13 While the American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes it is not always possible to provide breast milk exclusively in the first six months of life, they recommend it as the healthiest nutritional option for babies.14

Breastfeeding Benefits Do Not End in the Gut

As you’re making a decision about breastfeeding, it’s helpful to know the benefits to both baby and mom. Aside from the benefits to gut bacteria discussed above, breastfeeding may also confer the following benefits to your baby:

Natural immunity

Breastfeeding initially provides passive immunity as antibodies from the mother are passed through breast milk to the infant. Researchers have also found breast milk has a unique capacity to stimulate the infant’s immune system with long-term positive effects.15

Bonding

The close interaction during breastfeeding is just one way mothers experience a greater bond with their infant, which may extend years beyond infancy16 and impact parenting.

Reduction of blindness in preemies

Retinopathy of prematurity causes blindness in 10 percent of severe cases occurring in premature infants. More than half of children born before 30 weeks gestation are affected and the condition blinds 50,000 children worldwide.

An analysis suggests the incidence of severe disease, and thus blindness, could be reduced by 90 percent if all premature infants were fed breast milk.17 The researchers theorize the effect may be from the antioxidant and immune protective properties found in breast milk.

Reduction in sudden infant death syndrome

In one study, breastfeeding reduced the risk of sudden infant death syndrome in children by 50 percent at all ages through infancy.18 

Improved cognitive development

Babies breastfed for nine or more months exhibit greater cognitive development than those who have not been breastfed,19 and researchers found babies exclusively breastfed exhibit enhanced brain growth through age 2.20

Reduced allergies

In one study of over 1,200 mothers and babies, exclusive breastfeeding prevented the development of allergic diseases and asthma.21

Mothers Also Enjoy Benefits from Breastfeeding

Moms also enjoy benefits from breastfeeding their infants, including:

  • Quicker recovery from childbirth: The release of oxytocin during breastfeeding helps the uterus return to a normal size and reduces postpartum bleeding.22
  • Faster weight loss after childbirth: During pregnancy your body automatically stores extra fat to provide food for your baby. Producing milk burns approximately 450 extra calories each day, which helps mobilize visceral fat stores.23
  • Reduced rates of breast and ovarian cancer: Breastfeeding may cut the risk of breast cancer in women who have had children24 and women were 63 percent less likely to develop ovarian cancer when they breastfed for 13 months or more.25 The risk of ovarian cancer appeared to decline with each passing month as women who breastfed for 31 months or more had a 91 percent lower risk of ovarian cancer than women who breastfed less than 10 months.
  • Reduced rates of cardiovascular disease: Women who breastfeed have a 10 percent lower risk of heart disease and stroke,26 and the longer a mom breastfeeds, the greater the reduction in risk.27
  • Reduced risk of postpartum depression: The release of prolactin and oxytocin while breastfeeding produces a peaceful and nurturing sensation. Women who breastfeed enjoy a reduced risk of developing postpartum depression in the first four months of their infant’s life.28

Skin-to-Skin Contact Promotes Bonding and Infant Health

Evidence shows newborns placed in skin-to-skin contact with their mothers immediately after birth move in a physiologically stable way from being in the womb to their early newborn moments.29 Mothers also exhibit an increase in maternal bonding and behavior after experiencing skin-to-skin contact directly after birth.

These benefits only continue to grow in the weeks following delivery. Infants are less likely to cry, more likely to maintain their body temperature, and have more stable heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure during skin-to-skin contact.30

Skin-to-skin contact on premature infants was first used in Bogota Colombia when a shortage of incubators for babies with severe infections forced neonatologists to find alternatives.31 Drs. Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez began to mimic the care kangaroos give to their newborns by encouraging moms to hold their infants bare-chested between their breasts in an upright position as often as possible. The doctors coined this “kangaroo care” and found mortality rates plummeted from 70 percent to 30 percent.

While most associate the benefits of skin-to-skin contact with breastfeeding, moms who choose to feed their infants formula may also enjoy the benefits of kangaroo care, which helps stabilize infant physiology (stabilizing heart rate, respiratory rate and raising oxygen saturation),32 improving mother-baby bonding and increasing quiet sleep.

Breastfeeding or Bottle Feeding Is a Parent’s Choice

Mothers face myriad decisions on the care of their new child, which is oftentimes overwhelming. The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) from the U.K. recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months but has amended their statement to include that “[bottle-feeding mothers’] choice must be respected.”33

Moms who choose to bottle-feed their children may be faced with negative reactions from medical staff, friends, family and even public opinion. The RCM’s chief executive Gill Walton explained the new guidelines help midwives give mothers information and guidance needed to decide the process they will use to feed their new infant. Gill said:34 

“We know that every woman wants the best for her baby and we want to be able to empower our members to support women to be the best they can be and enable them to make decisions that are right for themselves and their babies.”

Parents have the right to make choices for their infants and children as they grow into adulthood. Those rights come with a responsibility to keep their children safe and seek information and guidance to make the best decision for their family. It is the responsibility of medical professionals, friends and family to respect those decisions and support families in their efforts.

The same respect really should be extended to parents when they make vaccine choices as well. Alas, it’s not. For some reason, parents are entrusted to make the best choice for their children when it comes to food, yet those same parents are considered too ignorant to make a choice about whether or not to inject their child with a potentially toxic concoction of adjuvants and other ingredients in vaccines.

It’s a topic for another article, but I find the irony quite striking, as RCM specifically added that a mother’s choice to breastfeed or use infant formula “must be respected.” If one health-related choice must be respected, shouldn’t all health-related choices be respected?

Caring for Toddler’s Gut Microbiome

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states 99 percent of toddlers between 1 and 2 years of age are eating 7 teaspoons of added sugar each day — well over the highest amount thought to be safe for adults.35 The same study found 60 percent of children were consuming added sugar before age 1, which increases risk for obesity, poor health choices and diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.36

This is the first time researchers have evaluated sugar consumption in children younger than 2.37 The research surveyed parents of 800 children on how much added sugar the children consumed in a 24-hour period. Researchers also found the problem with sugar consumption grew as the children got older.

The American Heart Association recommends children under 2 avoid all foods with added sugars, including ready to eat cereals, baked goods, desserts and yogurt.38 Added sugars can be hidden in foods that appear healthy. For instance, a single-size serving of yogurt with fruit at the bottom may contain up to 6 teaspoons of sugar; an 8-ounce serving of apple juice or orange juice contains 5.5 teaspoons of sugar. Dried fruits can also contain up to 21 teaspoons of sugar in 1 cup.39

In an interview following the release of the CDC study, holistic dietitian Jodi Bullock from Des Moines, Iowa,40 commented the number of children eating added sugars was staggering, as there's no need for added sugar for anyone, especially not a child. She stated children will eat what you're eating, so it's important to set a good example. Keep food simple, serving lots of whole foods with color, including fruits and vegetables, while steering clear of juices and fruit snacks. The added sugars included in the study were:41

Brown sugar

Corn sweetener

Corn syrup

Dextrose

Fructose

Glucose

High fructose corn syrup

Honey

Lactose

Malt syrup

Maltose

Molasses

Raw sugar

Sucrose

Do You Need Help Breastfeeding?

While not all women will make the decision to breastfeed, the majority are able to produce more than adequate supplies of milk to breastfeed successfully. Since mothers are unable to measure the amount of milk being consumed by their baby, some believe they aren’t producing enough. However, when formula supplementation is used, it reduces your supply as the supply of milk is dependent upon the demand. In other words, the more your baby nurses, the more milk your body produces.

Nursing mothers need to stay well-hydrated, drink plenty of water and seek optimal nutrition to supply the energy needed to produce milk. The first weeks and months are crucial to the process of establishing a strong milk supply. Your baby’s sucking instinct will be very strong directly after birth, so begin nursing as soon as possible.

Lactation consultants encourage you to place your baby to breast in the delivery room. This also helps release oxytocin to reduce postpartum bleeding and begin the process of returning the uterus to normal size. The first milk produced is called colostrum, a thick, golden-yellow fluid that is gentle to your baby’s stomach and full of beneficial antibodies.

Over the coming days and weeks your milk gradually changes color and consistency. Newborns need to nurse at least once every two hours for approximately 15 minutes on each side, but they don’t adhere to a strict schedule. When you accommodate feedings to the needs of your infant, you’ll find frequent feeding stimulates your breasts to produce increasing amounts of milk to keep up with the demand as your baby grows.

You may want to begin planning for successful breastfeeding before your baby is even born by taking a breastfeeding class while you're pregnant. La Leche League42 is a terrific resource to contact for help whether you want to prepare beforehand or find you're having trouble breastfeeding once your baby is born. Also find out whether your hospital of choice offers breastfeeding classes and lactation consultants who can help you. If it doesn't, you may want to select a hospital that offers greater support.

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