22 September 2017

One more reason to breastfeed

Hormonal changes encountered during breastfeeding may lower the risk of endometriosis, according to new research.

The benefits of breastfeeding have been discussed in depth and studies have shown that breast-feeding lowers the risk of infections in newborns.

Not only does breastfeeding benefit the baby, but it can also lower the risk of breast cancer

Now there is another benefit for the mother.

Women who breastfed at least one child appear to have a lower risk for developing endometriosis, new research suggests.

A painful condition 

Endometriosis is a chronic and often painful condition that occurs when the lining of the uterus grows outside the reproductive organ on the fallopian tubes, ovaries or another area. Health24 reports that the most common symptoms include extreme pain in the lower abdomen and pelvic area.

According to the Endometriosis Society of South Africa, one in ten women suffers from endometriosis. 

Link between breast-feeding and endometriosis

"We found that women who breastfed for a greater duration were less likely to be diagnosed with endometriosis," said study author Leslie Farland. She is a research scientist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"Given the chronic nature of endometriosis and that very few modifiable risk factors are currently known, breast-feeding may be an important modifiable behaviour to reduce the risk of endometriosis among women after pregnancy," Farland said in a hospital news release.

What the study entailed 

The study involved thousands of women who participated in the Nurses' Health Study II. That study began in 1989, and the women were tracked for two decades. The researchers found that during this time, nearly 3 300 of the women were diagnosed with endometriosis after giving birth to their first child.

The research team then focused on breastfeeding behaviour among the women. Specifically, the researchers considered how long the women nursed their infants, when they introduced solid food or formula, and how much time passed before their first postpartum period.

The women's risk for endometriosis fell by 8% for every three additional months they breastfed after each pregnancy, the findings showed. Their risk dropped 14% for every extra three months of exclusive breast-feeding after each pregnancy.

The researchers also looked at a woman's lifetime risk. Women who exclusively breastfeed for a cumulative 18 months or more during their reproductive years (which may include multiple pregnancies) have a nearly 30% lower risk for endometriosis, the study found.

Temporary pause of menstruation a reason

The temporary pause in periods while women are breast-feeding shortly after birth may partially explain their lower risk for endometriosis, the study authors suggested. The hormonal changes associated with breast-feeding could also play a role.

However, it's not entirely clear if women who breast-feed are less likely to develop endometriosis or if they are just less likely to become symptomatic and seek out a surgical evaluation to confirm the diagnosis.

"Our findings lend support to the body of public health and policy literature that advocates for the promotion of breast-feeding," Farland said.

"Our work has important implications for advising women who are looking to lower their risk of endometriosis. We hope that future research will illuminate whether breast-feeding could help lessen the symptoms of endometriosis among women who have already been diagnosed," she added.

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