A large body of research has already documented all the health benefits of breastfeeding for mama and baby. Nursing can boost a baby’s brain development, lower asthma and allergy risk, and lower mom’s risk for Type 2 diabetes. Now there’s one more to add to the list: A new study suggests that breastfeeding may boost mom’s heart health for years to come.
According to researchers from the American College of Cardiology, pregnant women with normal blood pressure have lower heart disease risk years later when they nurse for at least six months following child birth, compared to those mamas who haven’t breastfed.
Although previous studies showed the short-term health benefits of breastfeeding, this is the first study to analyze how nursing impacts cardiovascular health a decade after giving birth.
Lead author Dr. Malamo Countouris, a cardiology fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, says of the findings, “The study adds to the evidence that lactation is important not just for the baby but for the mother. Breastfeeding seems to be cardioprotective in these women, as evidence by improved cholesterol and markers of subclinical cardiovascular disease.”
Researchers analyzed health data from more than 670 mothers who were recruited at over 52 clinics across Michigan between 1998 and 2004. The women were pregnant when they enrolled in the study, and took part in a follow-up health assessment seven to 15 years later.
The women were separated into three groups: Those who breastfeed for six months per pregnancy, those who breastfeed for six months or longer, and those who never nursed. What they discovered is that, compared to mamas who didn’t nurse, pregnant women with normal blood pressure who breastfed for six months or more had significantly lower triglycerides, higher levels of good cholesterol and a healthier diameter thickness of the carotid artery.
In a separate analysis, the researchers found that breastfeeding did not reduce cardiovascular disease risk in pregnant women with high blood pressure.
The findings are a first step in understanding how pregnancy can affect heart health, the researchers say. But, Countouris notes, because the study relied on self-reported data, further research is needed in order to identify risk factors for heart disease among pregnant women with normal and high blood pressure.
These future studies should either include more women or track participants for longer periods, he adds. “There’s a lot we still don’t understand about the accumulation of cardiovascular risks in women,” Countouris says. “Examining how pregnancy may increase or perhaps mitigate some of that risk can give us insights into the unique presentation and development of heart disease risk in women.”
The study will be presented at the American College of Cardiology's 67th Annual Scientific Session on March 10.
Although researchers may have found a link between breastfeeding and long-term heart health, that doesn’t mean formula feeding isn’t any less beneficial.
Not all mamas can or want to nurse, and some mothers choose to supplement their breastfeeding with formula. This study indicates that breastfeeding may be cardioprotective, but there are tons of other things mamas can and should do to protect their heart health, whether they breastfeed or not.
1. Eat for heart health
The FDA recommends women cut down on sugar, salt and trans fats if they want to be proactive about preventing heart attacks, and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a diet full of fruits and vegetables, with whole grains, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and non-tropical vegetable oils.
According to experts at Harvard, the demands of juggling work and childcare can take a toll on women’s heart health. They recommend women foster positive relationships, practice relaxation techniques (like yoga, meditation, deep breathing or visualization) and limit work related intrusions (like midnight emails) during off hours.
A woman’s risk for heart disease increases if chronic depression and stress go untreated. If you’re feeling stressed or down, seeking help from a counselor isn’t just good for your mental health, it’s good for your heart health, too.
3. Get active
Just 30 minutes per day of moderate exercise, like brisk walking, can make a difference in a woman’s heart health, according to the AHA. It recommends women take small steps towards fitness if they’re just getting started. Little things like taking the stairs instead of the elevators can help make a difference in a woman’s heart health.
Eating healthy, exercising and taking care of our own mental health are all ways we can model heart healthy behavior for our kids long after they are done breastfeeding.
Nursing may be good for a mom’s heart health, but when moms take care of their heart health in other ways, too, it’s good for the whole family. After all, we’re kind of the heart of the family.
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