Breastfeeding and Heart Health

As we enter heart health month in February, we’re going to examine many matters of the heart, both medically and emotionally.  Heart health is genetic but lifestyle factors play a large role in maintaining cardiovascular health and reducing risk factors for heart disease, the number one cause of death among women in the U.S.  One huge lifestyle choice that impacts heart health that is well within your control is breastfeeding.  Today we’re looking at breastfeeding and heart health.

Before we get into breastfeeding, we should talk a little about the toll that pregnancy takes on the heart.  During pregnancy, a woman’s body has to work harder to sustain both herself and her growing baby.  The body’s blood level increases by approximately 50% to help with the task.  But pumping all that extra blood causes the heart to go into overdrive and can leave the heart in worse shape than prior to pregnancy.  However, breastfeeding may be able to reverse this damage and actually improve heart health.

Breastfeeding and heart health__1452884468_50.243.196.179The leading study on breastfeeding and heart health examined 140,000 women after their child-bearing years.  The research was overwhelmingly positive for women who breastfed their babies.  And the longer they breastfed, the greater the benefits.

The study looked at how many women developed heart disease and heart-related risk factors of heart disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.  Researchers found that women who breastfed 7 to 12 months not only had lower incidence of heart disease, but they also had lower occurrence of the other risk factors associated with heart disease.  Conversely, not breastfeeding at all or breastfeeding for a month or less showed to have higher rates of heart-related risk factors.

While we know genetics does impact heart disease, this study found the same results across race, socioeconomic status, income levels and education.  The bottom line showed that a mother’s heart health benefits from breastfeeding.

A more recent study also shows a positive correlation between breastfeeding and heart health.  In this study researchers examined atherosclerosis or the level of plaque built-up in arteries, which is a major risk factor of heart disease.  The women in this study were examined prior to pregnancy and again 20 years later to determine the thickness of their carotid arteries, an indication of atherosclerosis.  Researchers found that 17% of women who breastfed for a year of less had dangerous plaque while 11% of those who breastfed for more than 10 months had this type of plaque.  While this may seem like a small 6% difference, it could be the determining factor of battling heart disease.

Experts in women’s health, cardiology and obstetrics all support breastfeeding as a benefit for heart health.  Many of them claim breastfeeding should be emphasized more and advocacy should be supported to encourage mothers to make this choice not only for their babies but their own health as well.  Beyond heart health, breastfeeding shows great benefits in lowering certain types of hormone related cancers, emotional problems and other health conditions.  Breastfeeding is an essential part of heart health, and one you have control over as you enter your journey into motherhood.  Cheers to your heart health!