Replicating the nourishment found in mother’s milk has been a challenge, especially since science continues to reveal its complex composition. Previous research indicates breastfed children have a lower risk of certain medical conditions, such as wheezing, infections, asthma and obesity. Identifying specific components that influence immunity is key to identifying a potential for therapeutic interventions.
A recent study hypothesized that “sensitization resulting from the composition of complex sugars in breast milk [could possibly] prevent future food allergies,” and this hypothesis was verified in 1-year-old infants (N=421). Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are structurally complicated sugar molecules unique to breast milk. Classified as “the third most abundant solid component in human milk after lactose and fat,” they are indigestible, but play a key prebiotic role and help develop the infant’s gut microbiota.
This team found that the overall HMO composition appeared to play a role in food sensitization, however, “no individual HMO was as yet associated with food sensitization.” Even though the composition of HMOs in breast milk varies depending on the lactation stage, gestational age, maternal health, ethnicity, geographic location and whether or not the mother is breastfeeding exclusively, a beneficial HMO profile was associated with a lower rate of food sensitization in children at one year.
This study highlights the need for further research to help further identify the underlying biological mechanisms of HMOs in structuring the infant microbiota, and to assess whether HMO modification can be used therapeutically.
The fact that HMO composition varies may explain why the microbiota of each of us also varies based on the same factors. These variables make it very difficult to create a “therapeutic intervention” that is viable, much like probiotic therapy.
The easiest solution is to promote and support breast feeding. Although the trend back to breast feeding continues, many women are not well educated prior to childbirth and often have a less than successful experience. Lactation consultation should occur prior to childbirth and continue until the mother feels she is confident she is meeting the needs of her baby.
This is an interesting line of research that should continue. I doubt that HMO modification is a true therapeutic option, but reinforcing the benefits of breast feeding is worth the effort.