What Are Human Milk Oligosaccharides And Why They Are Important?Dr. Kotha Rakesh
Assistant Professor of Neonatology
If you are a new mother or expecting your bundle of joy, here’s the mantra to a healthy baby – human milk. One advice that all doctors tirelessly repeat to women who are getting ready for motherhood is exclusively feeding mother’s milk to a baby. Many new moms do wonder though – is only mother’s milk sufficient for their babies? Is there anything else that can be supplemented with mother’s milk so that the baby can get wholesome nutrition? With so many different sources of information, new moms can get confused. But here, we are not only going to explain what constitutes human milk, but also one of the most important components present in it.
Why Human Milk?
First things first. Human milk is a vital source of nutrients for a baby – so much, that doctors prescribe a diet of exclusive human milk for at least the first six months. This is due to the fact that the composition of human milk makes it easy to digest for the still immature digestive system of the baby.
Babies who have been fed regularly with breast milk have also been found to be at a lower risk of suffering from diseases such as Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC), urinary tract infections, and gastroenteritis.
Human milk largely consists of fats, proteins, carbohydrates such as lactose and oligosaccharides, and traces of other minerals such as Calcium, Potassium, Sodium, etc. While majorly it’s made up of fat and lactose, there is this constituent which is also the third most abundantly occurring in human milk – Oligosaccharides.
What are Human Milk Oligosaccharides?
Oligosaccharides are complex sugar compounds that are produced in the mammary gland by lactating mothers. These are made up of simple sugar compounds and that’s why they are a major source of carbohydrates as well. These compounds combine with different constituents in the human milk, and around 200 of such combinations have been identified so far. Surprisingly, these oligosaccharides are found only in minute traces in animal milk – which makes them unique and all the more necessary for a baby.
4 Functions Of Human Milk Oligosaccharides
Now that we have seen how crucial these compounds are for babies, let’s go a step ahead to understand how these actually work. Many researchers around the globe have extensively studied human milk Oligosaccharides to understand what they actually do, and how do they work. Being complex sugar compounds, these have been found to perform many functions, and we have listed the four most important ones below:
1.Stimulation Of Beneficial Microbes
While other components of the breast milk are easy to digest, Human Milk Oligosaccharides are practically difficult to break down. If they cannot be digested easily by the baby, how do they aid in the baby’s health? Here comes the interesting part – the undigested human milk Oligosaccharides become a source of food for intestinal bacteria – which are good for the developing gut of the baby.
2.Protection Against Infections
A newborn baby would consume microbes from the mother’s milk. These microbes can be both good and bad for the baby. It becomes necessary that the impact of bad microbes is reduced, without affecting the good microbes. This is where human milk Oligosaccharides come into the picture. They protect the newborn from infections by attaching themselves to the pathogenic cells, limiting their effect on the intestine.
Apart from the intestines, human milk oligosaccharides can also help in the neurological development of the baby. Recent studies have indicated that they provide the brain with sialic acid, which aids in its development.
Another function of Human milk oligosaccharides is still under extensive research, but preliminary studies have found that they exhibit anti-inflammatory behavior, which can be specifically helpful for infants born by Caesarean section.
The way forward
Thus, human milk oligosaccharides not only protect the baby from harmful microbes, but also nurture the intestinal bacteria in the gut. This helps strengthen the function of the colon and keeps the baby healthy.
There is still a ton of research going on around these compounds, as their consistency and structure are known to alter over the period of lactation. In addition to this, oligosaccharides vary to an extent from mother to mother. In fact, their concentration was found to be higher in the milk of mothers who have delivered preterm babies. Preterm babies have lower resistance to temperature fluctuations when compared to term babies in general. When we put two and two together, we can see their quantity and structure are aligned to the babies’ needs. That’s truly intuitive and intriguing!
What about babies who cannot be breastfed by their mothers? They can get in touch with organizations such as Neolacta who are focused on creating 100% breastmilk-oriented products. This way, the baby does not miss out on the benefits of mother’s milk and its magical constituents like oligosaccharides.