“Physician and author Abraham Verghese argues that the most important innovation to come in medicine in the next 10 years is human touch.”
…and was asked to discuss it. Here’s what I said:
I spent the last five years doing a PhD in nutrition with a goal to understand how diet can prevent disease. One thing I realized during this degree is that the most efficient way to prevent disease is to nourish optimally during the first 1000 days of life—a time when breast milk is the most important source of nutrition. Unfortunately, too many women can’t breastfeed, or choose not to, or have circumstances that prevent it. What I’ve learned is that technological innovation cannot fix this problem. Even if formula companies created a powder that perfectly matched the composition of breast milk, it wouldn’t matter. That’s because the nourishment an infant receives when it breastfeeds is only partially due to the physical constituents of the milk itself. Studies have shown that skin-to-skin contact…the touch between the mother and her child is the key. Touch is what enables the mother to produce the specific antibodies for the germs her baby has been exposed to. Touch is what enables optimal development of the baby’s jaw, teeth and facial structure. And most importantly, touch stimulates greater oxytocin release in the mother which makes her more confident, improves her mood, lessens her stress, strengthens her bond with her child and increases her desire to care for her baby. Therefore, innovation in formula technologies won’t fix the health issues that stem from the earliest days of life. Because the preventative health benefits of breastfeeding are as much due to touch as they are to nutrition.
Did you know that breastfeeding your child for 2 years can cut your risk for breast cancer in half! My latest blog for the American Society for Nutrition explores the maternal benefits of breastfeeding…check it out!
One of the most interesting studies I’ve come across while preparing for my comprehensive exam showed that the benefits of breastfeeding can depend on one’s genes. In the study, the authors compared the IQs of children who were breastfed in contrast to children who were formula fed. Normally, we expect that the children who were breastfed will have a higher IQ. In keeping with dogma, this is what the authors found in those with a certain variation of the FADS2 gene. However, in children with a different variant of the FADS2 gene, they found something surprising. In these children there was not difference in the IQ of those who were breastfed versus those who were formula fed.
So what does this mean? Well, perhaps there is a gene that either accentuates the ability of the breast milk to promote neural development, or conversely, there may be a gene that prevents the ability of breast milk to improve neural function. At this point, they’re really not sure.
I want to be crystal clear about something…these findings should not be interpreted as a rational for formula feeding. Breast milk is–and always will be–the gold standard when it comes to infant nutrition. Nevertheless, this study illustrates some of the interesting things going on inside the body, the things we (probably ) can’t control, and perhaps, the things that make us who we are.
I learned about this fact from: Caspi et al. Moderation of breastfeeding effet on the IQ by genetic variation in fatty acid metabolism. PNAS, 104(47): 18860-18865.