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Breastfeeding and Your Telomeres: Helping you and your baby to live longer

Do you want to increase the chances of you and your baby living longer?  Here is another wonderful benefit of breastfeeding and it has a lot to do with your Telomeres (tee-lo-meres)?  Telomeres are located on the tips of our chromosomes and correlate significantly with health and longevity. 

In fact, they may be considered the fountain of youth people historically have been searching for and yearned for.  But much of this is dependent on our lifestyles.

The research on telomeres is relatively new in science and presents a new way of thinking about human aging.  The question that is raised in the book “The Telomere Effect” by Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD and Elissa Epel, PhD, is “Why do people appear to age differently?”  

The DNA of every chromosome has DNA strands at their tips, which are coated by a protective sheath of proteins.  Even though they are very small, less than one-ten-thousandth of the total DNA of our cells, they are vitally important to our lives.  They are known to shorten with each cell division.  They help to determine how fast your cells age and when they die, depending on how quickly they wear down.  We didn’t use to believe that they could grow longer again, but now we do know that the ends of our chromosomes, our telomeres, can actually lengthen.  Though we will all become older, new evidence shows this is a dynamic process that can be accelerated or slowed, and even reversed.

Our telomeres actually listen to us by responding to the instructions we give them.  This happens through the foods we eat, how we respond to emotional challenges, how much exercise and sleep we get, and trust and faith in those surrounding us.  In this way, we have a degree of control about our cellular health.

We now know that a new mother can actually “feed” her baby’s telomeres by making sure she is exclusively breastfeeding in the first weeks of life. A study out of UCSF found that children who were only breastfed in the first six weeks of life (no formula or solid foods) had longer telomeres.1 Therefore, introducing solid food before six weeks of age is linked to shorter telomeres. And just as interesting is the fact that a mother who has shortened telomeres, actually passes on these shortened telomeres to her baby in the womb, not giving her baby a good start in life.  “If the mother’s telomeres are short throughout her body (including those in the egg) when she contributes the egg, the baby’s telomeres will be short, too.  They’ll be short from the moment the baby starts developing.” 2 Therefore, if the mother has been exposed to life factors that have shortened her telomeres, she can pass those shortened telomeres through direct transmission directly to her baby. Furthermore, It is now known that telomeres are transgenerational, affecting future generations.3   It appears this is true for the father of the baby as well, but to a lesser extent than the mother. 4  

Shortened telomeres increase risk to children as they grow. Young children with shorter telomeres, were found a few years later to be more likely to have a thickening of their arteries, placing them at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. 5 

Nutrition and oxidative stress are two aspects of lifestyle that significantly affect the length of our telomeres.  It was found that three year old children who drank four or more sodas a week had a greater rate of telomere shortening.6 Processed meats also appear to shorten our telomeres.  In fact the SAD American diet high in salt, sugar, and fat is associated with shorter telomeres whereas diets high in fiber, vegetables, nuts and legumes fruits and omega 3s are associated with longer telomeres.7  Mothers with inadequate folate in pregnancy have shorter telomeres.8 But one study showed that too much folate may decrease her baby’s telomere length. Therefore moderation and balance are essential.9

In terms of severe stress (as opposed to lower stresses of daily life), a mother’s psychological stress may affect the telomere length of her baby in the womb.  In other words, a baby’s telomeres can suffer from his mother’s prenatal stress.  It is the stress hormone cortisol that crosses into the placenta and affects the fetus.10

The conclusion of telomere research on pregnant women is that we must find ways to protect pregnant women from severe stress in life.  We must reach pregnant women with early childbirth preparation, have a birth doula, a kangaroula, and a postpartum doula with her so she can feel safe and produce hormones of joy. And most importantly, we need to encourage pregnant women to breastfeed their babies at least in the first six weeks of life, so they can lengthen their telomeres and give themselves, their babies, and future generations the best chances for a happy and long life.

  1. Wojcicki, J., et al. “Early Exclusive Breastfeeding I Associated with Longer Telomere in Latin Preschool Children,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (July 20, 2016, doi: 10:10.3945/ajcn.115.115428
  2. Blackburn, Elizabeth PhD, Epel, Elissa, PhD, The Telomere Effect, Grand Central Publishing, NY. 2017. P. 283
  3. Blackburn et al, The Telomere Effect, p. 282 (see #2 above)
  4. Blackburn et al, The Telomere Effect, p. 283-84 (see #2 above)
  5. Skilton, M.R., et all, “Telomere Length in Early Childhood: Early Life Risk Factors and Association with Carotid Intima-Media Thickness in Later Childhood,” European Journal of Preventive Cardiology 23, no. 10 (July 2016, 1086-92, doi: 10.1177/2047487315607075.
  6. Factor-Litvak, P., et al., “Leukocyte Telomere Length in Newborns: Implications for the Role of Telomeres in Human Disease,” Pediatrics 137, no.4 (April 2016): e20153927, doi:10.1542/peds.2015-3927.
  7. Blackburn, et al “The Telomere Effect” p. 238. (see #2 above)
  8. Paul, L., et al., “High Plasma Folate Is Negatively Associated with Leukocyte Telomere Length in Framingham Offspring Cohort,” European Journal of Nutrition 54, no. 2 (march 2015): 235-41, doi:10.1007/s00394-014-0704-1.
  9. Entringer,S., et al., “Influence of Prenatal Psychosocial Stress on Cytokine Production in Adult Women,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108, no. 33 (August 16, 2011: E513-18, doi:10.1073/pnas.1107759108.
  10. Skilton et al. “The Telomere Effect” p. 296 (see #2 above)