One More Way to Avoid Diabetes: Breastfeed

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New moms know that breastfeeding can be good for babies, providing them with much-needed nutrition as well as a shot of antibodies and other cells that help build immune systems. Now, evidence suggests that the practice may keep the mothers themselves healthier too.

Researchers led by Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz at University of Pittsburgh found that women who breastfeed are half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as women who do not. That's a big statistical difference, and although it's not clear what is behind the gap, scientists speculate that it has something to do with pregnancy pounds that expectant moms gain. Breastfeeding helps moms lose the abdominal fat they gain during pregnancy more efficiently. And while abdominal — or visceral — fat is important for the gestating baby's development, it can be detrimental to a mother's health if it continues to build after delivery, since it's been linked to greater risk of metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance and heart disease as well as diabetes.

"When you look at mammals, you have to consider lactation as part of the pregnancy experience," says Schwarz. "When women don't breastfeed after pregnancy, or lactation is curtailed or prematurely discontinued, women end up retaining more fat than they would have if they breastfed. Then the mother's health can suffer."

Animal studies have helped reveal other reasons this is so. Breastfeeding, those studies found, can increase a mother's response to insulin, allowing her to break down glucose more effectively and keep sugar metabolism in check. Lactation also inhibits hormones that promote growth hormone activity, which can also affect insulin levels. In addition, studies have shown that when women do develop diabetes during pregnancy, known as gestational diabetes, breastfeeding the newborn can improve their glucose metabolism and help stabilize the condition.

Despite the growing body of research establishing the health benefits of breastfeeding, moms in the U.S. remain resistant.The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that new mothers breastfeed their infants for at least six months, yet only 14% of women do. For the 86% who don't, Schwarz says lifestyle interventions such as exercise and changes in the diet can go a long way toward lowering their diabetes risk — even if it doesn't replace the health dividends the babies would be receiving if they were breastfed. "This [study] shows that perhaps counseling these women to try to reduce their personal risk of developing diabetes should be something that doctors should consider," says Schwarz. "And if you are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, or currently breastfeeding, then stick with it because it's important to both your baby's and your own health."