There is a ton of research pointing to the value of breastfeeding for the baby — everything from providing essential nutrients to leading to lower rates of subsequent asthma and higher immune system function.
But what about the mother?
It turns out that breastfeeding may be even better for her. A new report from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) shows strong evidence that breastfeeding can reduce women’s risk of premenopausal and postmenopausal breast cancers.
Details of the report
The report reviewed 18 studies on lactation and breastfeeding. From the 13 that evaluated the effect of length of breastfeeding, the report finds that for every five months of breastfeeding duration, there is a two percent lower risk of breast cancer.
And that five-month period can be improved upon. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies should be breastfed exclusively for up to six months before introducing other foods. The incidence of breast cancer may be even lower if these guidelines are followed.
Why does breastfeeding lower breast cancer?
The report gives several possible reasons why breastfeeding may lower breast cancer risk. First, lactation delays when a woman starts menstruating again after giving birth. This reduces the exposure to hormones such as estrogen, which is linked to increased risk of breast cancer.
Second, breastfeeding may lower breast cancer risk because after lactation the breast sheds a lot of tissue during which it may also get rid of cells with damaged DNA, which can give rise to cancer.
Third, the report suggests that lactation may change the expression of genes in breast cells in a way that exerts a “lasting impact” on the risk of cancer development.
Other risks factors found
By going through 18 various studies, this report from the AICR and WCRF also found some other interesting risk factors. The report said there is strong evidence to suggest that being overweight and carrying excess body fat can raise the risk of breast cancer developing before menopause.
Also, it found a definite link between a higher risk of developing pre- and postmenopausal breast cancers and the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol consumption increases the risk, while vigorous exercise reduces it.
The report also found a trend showing breastfed babies are less likely to put on too much weight as they grow. This is a welcome trend because being overweight and obese raises the risk of developing 11 common cancers.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, not counting skin cancer. In 2014, 236,968 women in the U.S. found out they had breast cancer. In that year, 41,211 women died from the disease.
AICR Director of Nutrition Programs Alice Bender expounded on the value of breastfeeding, “It isn’t always possible for moms to breastfeed. But for those who can, know that breastfeeding can offer cancer protection for both the mother and the child.”