In a single issue of Scientific American, we get both some good news and bad news about bearing children and its ancillary activities. On the one hand, having babies could be killing us, on a cellular level. On the other, if we get them to nurse, they’re saving our lives.
Oh, cosmos, you are a tough nut to crack!
Let’s start with the negative:
We all know mothers pass along bits of genetic material and various cells to the growing fetus (as well as, put down that camembert sushi!, other stuff). What scientists are just now starting to realize is that the fetus is also passing their own genetic material and cells to the mom (but no raw dairy or fish).
It’s all kind of a mommy-baby bio-conversation.
These silent signals, SciAm reports, might influence a mother’s risk for certain diseases, like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. The effects of these conversations can last for year. Years!
In fact, up to 6 percent of the free-floating DNA in a pregnant woman’s plasma is made up of her fetus’ DNA. That amount drops after birth, but not to zero. Some of that DNA remains. A Tufts University geneticist had her plasma tested and they found male fetal cells (ones carrying a Y chromosome) some 27 years after the birth of her son.
As study of fetal microchimerism continues, there’s mounting evidence that the cells play a role in a mother’s response to diseases. For auto-immune disease, like rheumatoid arthritis, evidence seems to show the fetal cells beefed up mom’s auto-immune response. For cancer, however, it’s a mixed bag. Researchers found fewer fetal cells in breast cancer patients than those who did not have the disease. Yet they found fetal cells in cervical cancers (though not cervical tissue). The cells also appear in larger clusters around injury sites and also morph into organ cells for injured livers.
Or then there’s the oft-touted benefit of breastfeeding, which is thought to lower a mother’s risk for cancer and heart disease. So how might that work?
Scientists think it’s because nursing helps to break down the visceral fat that accumulated during pregnancy. Visceral fat is the kind that sits around organs and on mom’s belly, and has been associated with heart disease. Something about all the mechanics that go in to making breastmilk tends to mobilize fat — and the so-called “bad” cholesterol — and get everything back to pre-pregnancy status more quickly.
What’s also interesting is that women who took meds to suppress lactation were also at a lower-risk for these problems, when compared to mothers who gave birth but didn’t nurse. I’d be curious to see how both of those groups compare to women who were never pregnant or had never given birth at all.
Oh, oh, and breastfeeders who suffered through varying degrees of mastitis? It’s possible you built up your karma health bank during the pain and burning fevers. Some researchers think anti-bodies produced to fight the infection are also fighting off ovarian cancers. Feel better now?
The research is fascinating. And for we sentimental types, kind of sweet. The grow up and move away and don’t call often enough. But still, they remain quite literally a part of your body, in your blood.