Research Says Molecules in Breast Milk May Be Responsible for Some Health Benefits

They may help reduce inflammation and kickstart the immune system, according to Brigham and Women's Hospital.

In recent years, the pressure for new mothers to breastfeed has become deafening. And while a number of factors play into whether it’s the right choice for each woman, a study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) found new evidence of the health benefits of breast milk.

Looking at human milk at the molecular level, the researchers found that the milk contains a reservoir of molecules called specialized pro-resolving mediators (SPMs), which may combat inflammation and kickstart the immune system. Though some SPMs have been found in breast milk before, this is the first study that has shown just how many there are and how much they can do—everything from reducing pain to healing infections and wounds.

“Finding a reservoir of these inflammation-resolving molecules at bioactive levels was a big surprise for us,” said co-corresponding author Charles Serhan in a statement. “We’ve identified some of these molecular signals in other organs and tissue in the human body, but this is the first time we’ve seen them all in one place.”

To reach its conclusion, the BWH team looked for biochemical signaling pathways that have previously been shown to reduce pain and inflammation. Upon finding about 20 of them in breast milk, they tested the samples on human and animal models to see how long it took for them to cure an infection. Compared with cow’s milk, infant formula, and breast milk from women with an infection called mastitis, healthy breast milk was found to have more effective and plentiful SPMs.

The researchers said in the statement that they plan to do more studies to see exactly how SPMs affect infants and immune system formation. Nonetheless, the team’s initial findings provide compelling evidence for the health benefits of breastfeeding and its effect on newborns.