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No Milk? Blame Insulin

trouble breastfeedingLet’s skip through the mini-mommy war about breastfeeding vs formula and acknowledge we’re just talking about breastfeeding here. Why some people can’t breastfeed, not why some people choose not to. There’s a good chance that you or someone you know had every intention of breastfeeding their baby and it just didn’t work out; there was just no milk. They try pumping, they try herbs, they see lactation consultant after lactation consultant, but sometimes a mom’s milk just doesn’t come in. Sometimes it comes in, but it’s not enough to feed the bottomless pit otherwise known as a newborn. Well today we may be one step closer to figuring out a better way to help those women: treat pre-diabetes.

Pre-diabetes is just a fancy way of saying your body doesn’t handle blood sugar as well as it could. 20% of 20 to 44 year old females are pre-diabetic. (Notice that includes a big chunk of the child-bearing years.) The link between breastfeeding and pre-diabetes is found in insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas. It’s responsible for using or storing glucose, or blood sugar. During lactation, the mammary glands become more sensitive to insulin. While milk cells don’t actually need insulin to utilize glucose, insulin is a key factor in insufficient milk production. Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of California Davis found insulin is just the beginning of a cascade of things that happen in order to produce milk.

Between the time you have colostrum, the initial milk produced right after a baby is born, and a full milk supply, a whole bunch of genes turn on and off to signal the milk glands to actually make milk. Yes, “a whole bunch of” is absolutely a scientific term.

The connection to pre-diabetes is that moms that don’t make enough milk may actually be having trouble with insulin. (In diabetes, you either can’t produce insulin or can’t use it well.) That means the whole waterfall of events that happen microscopically to make milk magically appear don’t get a proper kick off.  Researchers were even able to identify a specific gene that may be a marker for insufficient milk production, called PTPRF. PTPRF suppresses the signals that insulin would normally turn on.

While this discovery doesn’t lead to an automatic solution to not having enough milk to breastfeed, it certainly helps point research in the right direction: treating pre-diabetes may help a mom breastfeed.

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