Is modern life making breast milk less beneficial?

Is modern life making breast milk less beneficial and leaving babies prone to allergies? Women in traditional farming communities have milk ‘richer in good bacteria and antibodies’

  • Women living in traditional communities produce more beneficial breast milk
  • The ‘farm-life effect’ protects their babies developing allergies, a study found
  • And it is passed on by mothers to their babies through breast milk

Modern life may be making breast milk less beneficial for babies and leaving them prone to allergies, a study suggests.

Experts analysed the milk of dozens of Mennonite women, who follow a traditional way of life devoid of modern technology and pesticides — similar to the Amish.

Samples were also taken from women living in the nearby city of Rochester.

Comparisons of the collections revealed Mennonite women produced milk which was more abundant in antibodies and bacteria. 

University of Rochester researchers believe their traditional way of life — which sees women exposed to farm animals and unpasteurised food — could help ‘programme’ the developing gut microbiota and immune system of their babies. 

They say the ‘farm-life effect’ may also explain why allergies are less common among Mennonites. 

Dr Antti Seppo, a paediatrician involved in the research, claimed the findings were important because they could point to why rates of atopic disease are ‘exploding’ in western countries. 

He added: ‘Perhaps one day these insights may help to prevent or mitigate these diseases.’ 

Old order Mennonites, anabaptist christians, are people of Swiss and South German heritage who live on traditional one-family farms with little modern technology 

More than a quarter or Britons and a third of Americans have allergies, such as to peanuts, shellfish and latex. 

But immunologists believe the figure will continue to rise over the next decade. 

Some scientists have suggested that the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ — that sterile modern living weakens our immune systems — is to blame.

An allergy is when the body reacts to a certain food or substance as though it is harmful.

They are very common, affecting around a quarter of Brits and a third of Americans.

Children are the most likely to suffer from allergies, although some will fade with age. 

Most allergies, such to pollen, dust mites and foods, are mild and can be kept under control, but severe reactions can happen.  

It’s not clear why allergies happen, but most people affected have a family history of allergies or have closely related conditions, such as asthma or eczema.

The number of people with allergies is increasing every year.

The reasons for this are not understood, but one of the main theories is it’s the result of living in a cleaner, germ-free environment, which reduces the number of germs our immune system has to deal with.

It’s thought this may cause it to overreact when it comes into contact with harmless substances.

Source: NHS 

Without exposure to dirt and germs early in life, it is claimed the immune system doesn’t learn how to control its reaction to everyday particles such as dust and pollen. 

This could cause the body to overreact when it comes into contact with harmless substances.

But the science behind the theory is still disputed, with other academics saying it distracts from finding the true cause of the rising prevalence of allergies. 

The new findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, may add more weight to the theory.

Mennonites — a group of 1.4million people scattered in pockets across the world — have a lower prevalence of atopic diseases. 

The anabaptist christians live on traditional one-family farms with little modern technology. Their lifestyle is similar to rural communities in Western countries in the early 1900s.

Dr Kirsi Järvinen-Seppo, lead author, said: ‘Such a lifestyle was once common around the world.

‘Today [it] is largely restricted in Western countries to some religious communities, such as the Amish or old order Mennonites. 

‘Allergies are far less common among them, which suggests their traditional lifestyle may be a protective factor against the development of atopic diseases.’ 

The study collected breast milk from 52 old order Mennonite mothers with young children who lived in Penn Yan, New York.

Researchers compared their samples to 29 mothers living in Rochester. 

The mothers completed surveys on their lifestyle, environment and whether their babies had symptoms of atopic diseases. 

Old order Mennonite mothers — a branch of the group who have Swiss and South German heritage — were more likely to give birth at home and their children were more exposed to farm animals, dogs, unpasteurised foods and barns. 

Their milk had higher concentrations of antibodies against food allergies, dust mites and bacteria associated with farm animals.

They also had higher levels of cytokines, which are proteins important for regulating the immune system. 

Dr Järvinen-Seppo added: ‘Our results indicate that women on such traditional farms generate immunity through long-term exposure to farm animals and foods such as unpasteurised farm milk and eggs. 

‘The results also suggest that babies can acquire some protection against allergic diseases through their mother’s milk.’ 

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