Is breastfeeding related to a person’s risk of developing multiple sclerosis?
According to a study published in this month’s online issue of Neurology, women who breastfeed for 15 months or more may be less likely to develop this chronic autoimmune disease.
The investigators issued an in-person questionnaire to 397 women who were newly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) or clinically isolated syndrome (CIS), a precursor to MS.
They also interviewed 433 healthy women without MS or CIS.
After controlling for socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and age, the researchers found that women who had breastfed for a cumulative total of 15 months or more were 53 percent less likely to have developed MS than those who had breastfed for zero to four months.
While the study found an association between prolonged breastfeeding and reduced risk of MS, it did not prove that breastfeeding was responsible for the lowered risk.
More research is needed to determine the nature of this link.
In the meantime, the lead author suggested that healthcare professionals and others should support women who want to breastfeed.
“If a woman expresses a desire to nurse, she should be supported to do so,” Dr. Annette Langer-Gould, the Regional Physician Multiple Sclerosis Champion at Kaiser Permanente Southern California, told Healthline. “And we should make resources available, including lactation consultants and support from an obstetrician and pediatrician, to help her achieve that goal.”
Pregnancy and MS
MS is a disease in which a person’s immune system attacks the myelin sheath that covers and protects the nerve fibers.
Over time, MS can cause permanent nerve damage and a wide variety of symptoms.
Sometimes, people with MS go into periods of remission, during which their symptoms lessen.
Past studies have found that women with MS tend to experience remission when they’re pregnant or breastfeeding for prolonged periods of time.
“It’s been known for a while that pregnancy induces remission of MS,” Langer-Gould said. “The thought was that in most women, the disease comes back with a vengeance once they’re postpartum. But we did a study about ten years ago showing that women who breastfeed, particularly to the point of suppressing menses, do not get that kind of rebound in disease activity. They actually remain protected.”
Based on those findings, Langer-Gould and her colleagues postulated a link between the number of years that a woman ovulates and her risk of developing MS.
To test this hypothesis, they asked participants in the latest study about several biological and behavioral factors that influence ovulatory years.
For example, they asked participants about past pregnancies, hormonal contraceptive use, age at first menstruation, and history of breastfeeding.
They found no overall link between ovulatory years and risk of MS.
But they did find that women who had breastfed for a cumulative total of at least 15 months, following one or more live births, were less likely to have developed the disease.
They also found that women who had gotten their first period at age 15 or older were less likely to have developed MS than those who first menstruated at age 11 or younger.
To determine the nature of these links, more research is needed.
“I’d love to see whether or not we’d find similar effects from prolonged breastfeeding in other autoimmune diseases, particularly in diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis,” Langer-Gould said.
“And then if we’re able to reproduce the findings in both MS and other autoimmune diseases, I’d like some animal studies done to see if we can sort out what the mechanism might be,” she added.
Benefits and barriers
This study contributes to a growing body of literature that links breastfeeding to maternal and children’s health benefits.
For example, prolonged breastfeeding has been linked to reduced risk of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart attack in mothers.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has also noted its protective effects against ear infections, respiratory illnesses, allergies, and some other diseases in children.
However, many women face barriers that make it harder to breastfeed.
For one thing, breastfeeding takes a lot of time and energy, which can be prohibitive for some mothers.
It also involves a learning curve, which can be challenging to navigate without help.
“I think one of the big barriers to breastfeeding is a lack of support,” Langer-Gould said. “Do they know how to nurse, especially if the baby’s having trouble latching on? Do they know what to expect, in terms of how frequently their baby will suckle? Do they have lactation consultants, or family members, or friends to support them through that?”
Limited maternity leave also poses a barrier to breastfeeding.
To help support people who want to breastfeed, Langer-Gould suggested that maternity leave should be extended for longer periods of time.
She also suggested that companies can support nursing mothers by providing on-site day care services, where employees can breastfeed their children during breaks.
When that’s not an option, she thinks it’s helpful for companies to provide comfortable spaces where employees can pump milk for later use.