Recent study suggests breast milk from mothers with IBD may compromise baby's immune system

U of A research team examined the breast milk of mothers with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Tarwinder Rai - 22 February 2019

A first-of-its-kind study to look in depth at whether breast milk components in mothers with Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis differ from healthy breast milk has shown that breast milk from these patients may compromise the immune system of their newborns.

The University of Alberta research recently published in the Journal of Crohn's and Colitis showed that breast milk of mothers with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) contains lower levels of protective antibodies such as IgA antibodies and lactose, but higher levels of inflammatory cytokines and succinate.

"Lower levels of IgA antibody in the milk of inflammatory bowel disease patients put their newborns at higher risk of infections like respiratory or gut than mothers without," said Shokrollah Elahi, immunologist and researcher in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry's School of Dentistry, who led a team including Vivian Haung, Karen Madsen and others from the Division of Gastroenterology. "It could be speculated that such differences may influence the protective effects of breastfeeding on the health of infants."

The breast milk from 41 mothers with ulcerative colitis and 31 mothers with Crohn's disease were examined at three and six months post-delivery alongside 17 healthy controls. The components of breast milk measured in these mothers were: cytokines (small signaling proteins), antibodies (proteins produced by the immune system to neutralize and eliminate pathogens) and metabolites (small molecules produced through the metabolism process).

Higher levels of inflammatory cytokines and succinate may predispose infants born to IBD mothers to inflammatory diseases. For instance, succinate is an inflammatory signal and has been reported acting as carcinogenic initiator.

While the reduction in immunoprotective components of IBD breast milk may modulate the potential protective effects of breastfeeding, Elahi stresses there needs to be more research conducted before drawing the conclusion that breast milk is not a good option for moms with IBD.