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Breastfeeding Cuts Mom's Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

February 1, 2006. Breastfeeding your baby can cut your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

"We found that breastfeeding is really good for mothers," says study author Dr. Alison Stuebe, at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "Each year she breast-feeds cuts the risk of type 2 diabetes by 15 percent," says Dr. Stuebe.

Breastfeeding Helps Mom and Baby

Breastfeeding offers a host of health benefits for babies.

Along with providing optimal nutrition, breast milk also provides compounds that boost babies' immune systems and help protect against bacteria, viruses, and parasites, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition, breast-fed children have lower rates of childhood illnesses and tend to be leaner than their formula-fed counterparts.

And research has shown mothers benefit as well: Breastfeeding helps a mother's body return to normal faster after pregnancy, according to the FDA. Some studies have suggested that women who breastfeed for long periods of time may have lower rates of breast and ovarian cancer. But, no long-term studies had examined the effect of breast-feeding on maternal risk of diabetes, Dr. Stuebe says.

Dr. Stuebe and her colleagues suspected breastfeeding might affect type 2 diabetes risk because it substantially changes a mother's metabolic requirements. Research has shown that breast-feeding improves insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. The researchers used data from the Nurses' Health Study and the Nurses' Health Study II, which together included more than 150,000 women who had given birth during the study period. More than 6,000 of these women were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

After controlling for body mass index (BMI) - because a high BMI is a known risk factor for type 2 diabetes - the researchers found that long-term breastfeeding reduced a woman's risk of developing diabetes. The risk was decreased by 15 percent for each year of breastfeeding for women in the Nurses' Health Study, and by 14 percent for each year for those in the Nurses' Health Study II, according to the researchers. Dr. Stuebe remarks that they were not able to determine how breastfeeding might offer some protection against diabetes, only that breastfeeding was associated with a drop in the rate of type 2 diabetes.

Experts Looks for Clues

However, she notes, the researchers suspect that breastfeeding may help keep blood sugar in balance. Breastfeeding mothers burn almost 500 additional calories daily, according to the study. That is equivalent to running about four to five miles a day, explains Dr. Stuebe. "If done for a year, it's not surprising that it might have an effect on how the body takes care of insulin and glucose," she says.

Dr. Loren Wissner Greene, an endocrinologist at New York University Medical Center in New York City, says the explanation for why women who breastfeed for long periods may have lower rates of diabetes could be a simple one: "The small weight changes from lactation can make a significant impact on diabetes risk." In fact, Dr. Wissner Greene says, the best advice for anyone to avoid type 2 diabetes is to maintain a healthy weight, and lose weight if you are carrying excess weight.

Another potential explanation could be that women who breastfeed for a long time are more health-conscious than other women, and may have a healthier diet, may exercise more, and do other health-promoting activities that could reduce their diabetes risk. Dr. Stuebe says the researchers tried to take lifestyle factors into account and still saw an association between breast-feeding and reduced diabetes risk. The bottom line, says Dr. Stuebe: "We're talking about an intervention that doesn't cost anything, has no side effects, and has other potential benefits."

Always consult your physician for more information.

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