Today at 11 am, Bettina and I have a tremendous opportunity to inspire and educate students of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN)–the world’s largest nutrition school and a leader in training personal health coaches. IIN has designated Best for Babes as one of three charities for December eligible to receive a donation from IIN – up to $10,000–as selected by prospective students–sign up now for today’s webinar! We are looking forward to discussing the crucial role breastfeeding and human milk play in setting the stage for a lifetime of health –breastfeeding is not just “good nutrition,” it’s the foundation of our health–a staple ingredient in how to build a healthy human being and the magical elixir of “mom-made wonderfood” that sets us all up right from the start and protects against myriad physical and emotional ills in both mother and baby. We are elated that they are joining our growing network of concerned individuals, organizations, nonprofits, corporations, and celebrities, who together, will help to beat the breastfeeding booby traps™ so that moms can succeed in delivering the lifelong benefits that breastfeeding brings to themselves and their children!
I, personally, however, am pinching myself over another chance to position breastmilk and breastfeeding as the cornerstone of how to prevent illness, keep your toxic load low, and thrive well into adulthood — an issue which is near and dear to my heart both as a young breast cancer survivor (both sides affected, both removed at 37) and as a serial conqueror of chronic un-wellness that both pre- and post-dates the cancer. (See “My Breast Cancer Story: Why I Won’t Race for the Cure.”) I am outlining a broad theory here based on the data I have read. Hang in there with me as I lay it out for you – and check your “gut” at the end of this post and decide for yourself whether some, all, or most of what I say registers as true and worthy of passing on.
Not helping moms fulfill their innate desire to breastfeed and achieve their personal goals deals the first blow to the fabric of our health – our so-called constitutions —putting cracks in the foundation, cracks that additional stressors (physical and emotional) extend to higher floors as we grow.
I personally have relied heavily on integrative practitioners in my long quest to thrive. And in the last 5 years, since I have been in recovery mode (and, yes, it has taken me that long) I have repeatedly come back to the question “Why? Why me? How did this happen to me? Me, who has always loved exercise – running in particular, followed the advice of holistic doctors, succumbed to a gluten and dairy-free diet long-ago, had no family history and breasted for a total of 44 months?” And little by little, an answer has been percolating, and a message becoming clearer: Our bodies our breaking because magnificent and resilient as they are, we can only withstand so many “insults” before things come crashing down under the label of illness — be it acute, chronic, or fatal disease. In our modern world, we are asking our bodies and our beings to handle too much toxicity, too many deviations from the norm from the beginning: from artificial baby milk, to artificial and processed foods, to foods laced with pesticides, chemicals and hormones, to toxins in our toys, homes, yards, clothing, and the air we breathe, to the stress we feel from the rigors of modern life where we mostly play mother alone, are tied to technology and don’t allow ourselves down-time—the list is long. Any one of these insults on its own might not break too many links to throw the entire system off, but layer upon layer, the delicate balance of our internal ecosystem begins to spiral downwards from wellness to un-wellness to disease.
Looking at my own life as a case in point, this really rings true. Let me preface this emphatically with a no blame, no guilt caveat for those who love and raised me –we are all the product of the influences and information given us and our parents at any given time. I wasn’t breastfed, and my mother wasn’t breastfed, so if you look at the fascinating new research in epigenetics, my health is the product of a chain of weakened foundations. I give my mom huge props where they are due: having witnessed what she refers to as the “exquisite relationship” between my breastfed babies and me, and their undeniable contentment she is now a huge fan of breastfeeding, and of Best for Babes, and feels strongly that she was robbed of a precious experience and opportunity to bond with her children and protect their health. In fact, she was Booby Trapped by the cultural taboo of breastfeeding during the height of the women’s liberation movement (“you don’t have to be a cow anymore, get out and work for equal pay!”), during the peak of “convenience” and shelf-food marketing (food from a neatly packaged box or can is easier, safer than anything), and around the time that breastfeeding rates were lowest in the 20th century.
Though I led a very normal and seemingly “healthy” life, I reported that I didn’t feel well on a daily basis (much of it GI and headache-based). I was raised during a time (1967-1985) and in a place (Long Island, NY– where breast cancer rates have been unusually high for decades) where there was little consciousness about keeping toxic chemicals out of our food, toiletries, clothing, and environment. I smoked “socially” throughout my twenties. I gravitated toward the foods that disagreed with me most for years — wheat, dairy and sugar, until I was told that I was “intolerant” of them in my 20’s (they made me tired, colicky and irritable). My parents divorced when I was a teenager (another stressor that recent studies suggest is ameliorated by breastfeeding). I worked as a lawyer and was frazzled much of the time. I moved several times and endured economic hardship while my husband completed medical school and his fellowship; at the same time we started our family.
After having two babies and just before my cancer diagnosis, an integrative medicine doctor in Pittsburgh told me that I was “estrogen dominant” (meaning I had too much of it in my system– a lifetime of consuming estrogen through poultry, meats and plastics?) and that my adrenal glands were seriously fatigued from stress overload. A few weeks later, I was diagnosed with estrogen-driven breast cancer (coincidence?) and underwent double mastectomies, reconstruction and six months of chemotherapy. I was only 37. This was a catastrophic event, a colossal physical and emotional trauma, and possibly, the final blow to my immune system. And, in fact, my lifelong cluster of “unwell” symptoms began to worsen when the “pink bubble” of having survived the ordeal wore off (about 1 year and a half after finishing chemo).
Does any or all of this explain with certainty why or how I got breast cancer, or still contend with undiagnosed un-wellness and dis-ease? Can we trace any or all of it back to not being breastfed, to generations of being exposed to the risks of formula (and formula today is a lot more advanced than when my mother drank it some 70 years ago), thereby weakening our immune response, plus the myriad of other toxins that got into my cells along the way? Maybe. Human milk and breastfeeding provide a blueprint and a foundation for a lifetime of physical, behavioral, and emotional health. Breastfeeding or donated human milk won’t negate a life-time of eating fast and processed foods, not exercising and living in toxic wastelands, but it can lessen the impact of future health assaults. The question isn’t what happens when we include it in the equation, but what happens to the human body—even later—when it’s deleted? We have convincing data that girls and women who were not breastfed as children have a 26-31% increased risk of contracting breast cancer in their lifetime. Studies show that non-breastfeeding is associated with an increased risk for childhood leukemia. We have strong data showing significantly increased risk for adult diseases like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes from non-breastfeeding. We have proof that leaving human milk out sets up an unhealthy imbalance in the gut of newborns and leaves them far more vulnerable to all kinds of infections and inflammatory conditions (ie., necrotizing enterocolitis, Crohn’s, rotovirus, strep), and leads to food intolerances and allergies in babies and children. We know that breastmilk is loaded with probiotics and Omega-3s – hugely popular as supplements now for both kids and adults, but far more effective in breastmilk. We now know that breastmilk turns on genes in the lining of the infant gut, the first defense against pathogens. We know that early digestion of foreign substances like cow’s milk proteins and soy, in turn, create antibodies and allergies to those foods and others — like cows milk, wheat, nuts. Is it an incredulous leap to say that science is probably not far behind in tracing adult GI problems– ie., food intolerances, allergies (e.g., lactose, gluten), reflux– back to suboptimal breastfeeding? Or that the set-up for estrogen-fueled tumors (responsible for many breast cancers including my own) starts with not receiving breastmilk during the first few days of life when it acts as an estrogen “coolant” and rapidly shrinks your baby’s swollen testes and vulvae backs to their normal size and state?
None of this means that if we achieve or exceed the Healthy People 2020 goals and get more moms the help they need to breastfeed–and get the Booby Traps out of their way– that illness and disease will disappear–there are a multitude of things that may still misfire in the matrix of the human body, mind and spirit, and the work of the Environmental Working Group and Healthy Child, Healthy World, among others, is key to reducing our toxic load. But more breastfeeding, especially continuation of breastfeeding, does mean, quite possibly, that the alarming recent increase in epidemic disease could be stymied. From hypothyroidism to high blood pressure to cardiovascular disease, from autism to depression to ADHD, from irritable bowel syndrome to constipation to Crohn’s, from diabetes to asthma to obesity, from allergies to reflux, from cavities to crooked teeth to craving sugar (formula is unnaturally sweet, and some is made with corn syrup, which bypasses the body’s intelligent signaling system), from early puberty to breast and ovarian cancer –it’ s not the dairy industry, but breastfeeding that “does a body good”. Imagine what disease rates could be if breastfeeding lay at the foundation of our lives –how it would change our definition and our analysis of what is normal for a healthy human being? Look at a population like our nanogenarians–most of whom were breastfed and did not get processed foods, and lived in a more natural world as children. Is it just good genes, or is it that they got the benefit of advances in modern medicine on top of breastfeeding? How about the folks living in the Blue Zones, who regularly thrive into their nineties with minimal disease and greater happiness? Is it a coincidence that they are raised on clean air, clean water, organic food, integrated daily exercise, and breastmilk?
And so, imagine if we had less “clean up” to do because we as a culture invested in setting the body up right from the start? Imagine if we could sweep away the guilt and blame, by lovingly reassuring parents that they didn’t know better, that they were undermined by the very institutions that should have helped them, by LISTENING to them and helping them heal from their anguish and misplaced anger, and then encourage them to turn that anger against the Booby Traps, not other moms? Imagine if we could rally everyone—mothers, fathers, grandparents, strangers, whether they breastfed or not, to stand up NOW for the sake of their daughters, sisters, and friends? Imagine if all disease foundations–Susan G. Komen, March of Dimes, American Heart Association, The Breast Cancer Fund, the American Diabetes Association, LIVESTRONG, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society,the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and others included a non-judgmental, educational message about breastfeeding (along with exercise, regular screening, avoiding toxins, and eating right) front and center in all of their promotional materials? Imagine if we all got behind the idea that breastfeeding is not just good nutrition, it’s the stuff that primes the pump and the plumbing properly for life and that not breastfeeding puts undue stress on a fragile, newly-minted body that sets the stage for cracks in the foundation, allowing all kinds of malfunctions to set in? What if breastfeeding were included at the top of the food chart in advice about healthy eating and top of the list in how to PREVENT illness and disease? What if this information was taught in our elementary schools and middle schools and high schools, and breastfeeding was visible in health education videos and in public so that our children internalized it as normal as riding a bike, brushing their teeth, or going out to play? Imagine what wonderful infrastructure and support systems for breastfeeding would grow out of that mindset and agenda! All of us –babies and adults –deserve the opportunity to achieve our maximum potential and to THRIVE. This is simply one of those “winnable battles” with such huge potential gain. We absolutely can’t afford to either leave breastfeeding off of the priority list, or to allow the Booby Traps that are preventing the moms from achieving their personal breastfeeding goals and from maximizing their health potential and their baby’s to persist.
Kudos to the Institute for Integrative Nutrition for taking up the fight! We are thrilled to partner with them and honored for this opportunity to spread the message about the first food without pressure, judgment or guilt, and to join with IIN in cheering on, coaching and celebrating moms. Please join us for the webinar today at 11:00 a.m. EDT, to register, click here!