Breast is best, but the effect breast milk has on the human body is still a bit of a mystery to today’s scientists. Recent research suggests breastfeeding may prevent autism, but could it be used an alternative treatment in older children? Scientific evidence may back up this hypothesis.
Why breast milk?
There are three constituents of breast milk that may explain its possible effect on the body of an autistic child: stem cells, IGF proteins, and beneficial bacteria. These ingredients may be absorbed through the gut walls to be used by the body in various ways. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for two years. As part of a treatment plan for older children, mothers can express the milk and then serve it in a sippy cup or with cereal.
In 2013 Professor Foteini Hassiotou of the University of Western Australia discovered stem cells in human breast milk, igniting a firestorm of theories regarding the role stem cells may play in the development of a baby’s brain and other organs. Stem cells are known for their regenerative and healing properties. According to a Mount Sinai study of mice, stem cells can cross the placental barrier to save the life of a pregnant mother. If the pregnant woman suffers organ damage, like a heart attack, the developing fetus will donate stem cells to the mother to help her heal. Stem cells in breast milk may help heal the brain of those with autism and other developmental disorders.
Research has shown that children who develop autism are deficient in a protein called Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 or IGF. Gary Steinman, MD, PhD of Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine suggests measuring the amount of IGF in cord blood as an indicator of autistic risk. Dr. Steinman says IGF is “known to be deeply involved in the normal growth and development of babies’ brain cells.” Human breast milk has high levels of IGF. Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Seaver Autism Center is investigating an IGF drug to help those who are suffering from a genetic form of autism called Phelan McDermid Syndrome (PMS).
Many autistic children suffer from gastrointestinal disorders. This may be a case of poor stress management manifesting itself physically or the autism may be a direct cause of the lack of beneficial bacteria. Either way it can lead to numerous illnesses, including ‘leaky gut syndrome’ which can cause havoc on the body and mind. Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown, a researcher at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute found that autistic children have fewer types of bacteria in the gut and much lower amounts of three critical bacteria. A Spanish study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports breast milk contains over 700 species of bacteria, including critical beneficial bacteria. Drinking breast milk may help colonize the intestinal tract with gut flora, easing digestion and boosting the immune system.
Can breast milk cure autism?
Genetics, nutrition, antibiotics, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and a variety of toxins are all being researched for links to the autistic spectrum. There are different types of autism with different causes and potentially different treatments. Clinical studies on the properties of breast milk in relation to autism are in their infancy. More research and clinical trials are needed before breast milk can be recommended as a safe and effective treatment for autism. Always speak to a doctor before making any medical treatment decisions.
Note: The author is not a medical professional. This article is not intended as medical advice, simply an evaluation of published reports.
“Breastfeeding and Autism Risk” — Autism Speaks, January 2013
“Breast milk stem cells” — The Naked Scientist, November 2013
“Researcher uncovers potential cause, biomarker for autism and proposes study to investigate theory” — Science Daily, January 2013
“New Clinical Study Evaluates First Drug to Show Improvement in Subtype of Autism” — Mount Sinai, April 2012
Phelan McDermid Syndrome (PMS)
“From Breast Milk to Brains: The Potential of Stem Cells in Human Milk” — Journal of Lactation, April 2013
“Fetus donates stem cells to heal mother’s heart” — New Scientist, November 2011
“Clues about autism may come from the gut” — Science Daily, July 2013
“The human milk microbiome changes over lactation and is shaped by maternal weight and mode of delivery” — American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, July 2012