The news on breast-feeding is good news. According to the CDC, 77% of newborns begin life breast-feeding, and the number of infants still breast-feeding at six months and 12 months keeps going up. This is terrific for children, because research has linked greater physical and mental health and a lower risk of obesity to children who were breast-fed as babies.
However, not all breast milk is created equal, and this is important for nursing mothers to understand. What you eat affects not only the quality of your breast milk and your child’s subsequent nutrient intake, but can also affect how much your body has to take from your own stores in order to improve the quality of nutrient-deficient breast milk.
The mother’s body has priorities. During pregnancy, if nutrition is inadequate, the mother’s body will redirect nutrition, including nutrients from the mother’s body and brain, to the fetus, for the development of the fetal brain. That means the baby will draw down mother’s reserve of vitamins, minerals, and essential fats, in particular the omega-3 fatty acids, especially docosahexanoic acid (DHA).
This is important for the baby, to give the developing brain the building blocks needed. A recent study has shown a strong association between the level of DHA and other essential fats in the cord blood at birth and the child’s behavior at 10 years of age. Higher DHA and arachadonic acid levels (another important fatty acid) were associated with fewer problems with emotional difficulties, problem behaviors, and less hyperactivity or attention problems. In addition, if mom’s DHA level in her brain falls during pregnancy because her diet is not providing enough DHA for the developing baby’s need, DHA will be pulled from her brain, increasing her risk for postpartum depression.
So for moms, the quality of nutrition before, during and after pregnancy will have a major impact on the baby’s and mother's health. A diet high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and (most importantly) omega-3 fats, especially DHA, will help get the youngster a good start in life and lower the risk to the mom. That means moms need more vegetables, berries, nuts, and especially walnuts, flax or hemp for the omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, moms need good sources of DHA, which must come from animal sources like cold-water fish, shellfish, and grass-fed meats.
The vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids are alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which needs to be lengthened in the body to make DHA. It’s not an efficient process. Humans can convert 5% (7% if one is pregnant) of the ALA to DHA. Those with brain-related diseases often are less efficient at this conversion (which may be part of why they have a brain-related illness).
Therefore, if one is relying only on vegetarian sources, one needs to take in 20 times more ALA to make the equivalent amount of DHA needed for healthy brain and cell membranes. Diets high in omega 6 fats (the usual Westernized diet) due to the high use of liquid vegetable oils are associated with less healthy cell membranes and more risk of brain and heart problems. Furthermore, the evidence continues to grow that the intake of sufficient preformed DHA is important for the healthy development of the infant and young child.
Furthermore, the mother’s food should be organic to lower the intake of pesticides, herbicides, and growth-promoting hormones. This will minimize the toxin load being passed to the baby. Pesticides and other toxins are bio-concentrated in the animals that consume tainted food.
Numerous studies have examined cord blood and mother’s blood for toxins. A study of cord blood in 2004 and another in 2007 found that babies are born with a variety of heavy metals, solvents, pesticides, and other synthetic chemicals at birth. In addition, there is a new pilot study from Moms Across America and Sustainable Pulse that looked at glyphosate (the agricultural chemical known as Round Up) levels in breast milk and urine. Three of 10 women had detectable glyphosate in the breast milk at levels of 17ug/L to 166 ug/L which are 76 to 1600 times higher than the European drinking water standard!
Few studies of glyphosate have been done in humans, but rat studies have shown harm to the reproductive system and the brain. Better to reduce potential exposure to glyphosate and all the other pesticides by eating organic and using organic personal care products according to what your budget can afford.
Nobody wants babies to be getting pesticides, herbicides, lead, mercury, arsenic, and other toxins that will harm their developing brains. The best thing that parents can do is to lower exposure as much as possible. Ideally, switch to organic food and personal care products before getting pregnant.
During pregnancy, eat wild smaller fish, lower down on the food chain, and organic grass fed meat, as well as plenty of organic vegetables, stressing greens and sulfur rich vegetables in the cabbage, onion, and mushroom family to support the detoxification enzymes. This lowers the mom’s level of toxins she has stored in her body.
In my book, The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine, I review additional strategies to lower the intake of toxins and ramp up the enzymes in the body that eliminate toxins. I also explain how to have the most nutrient-dense diet possible, so you can be confident that you are giving your baby the best possible start in life.