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Breastfeeding, broccoli sprouts: A powerful combination for babies

Research suggests eating broccoli sprouts while breastfeeding may help protect infants from respiratory infection
breastfeeding baby smiles

Eating broccoli sprouts while breastfeeding can enhance the benefits of breast milk by transferring sulforaphane-N-acetyl-cysteine, a phytochemical that may protect babies from respiratory infections. Research found that when a nursing mother eats broccoli sprouts, some of the sulforaphane is absorbed into her bloodstream and then transferred into her breast milk.

“No one had shown that this phytochemical could be transferred into the milk, so that’s what we looked at,” said inhalation and developmental toxicologist Natalie Johnson.

Johnson, an associate professor at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, studies how early-life exposures to environmental chemicals can impact health. Recently, she has been studying the effects of sulforaphane on respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection in neonates.

Sulforaphane is found in all cruciferous vegetables, such as kale, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, but it is especially abundant in broccoli sprouts.

RSV is a common virus that causes mild cold-like symptoms in most people but can be very serious for infants. It can lead to bronchiolitis, pneumonia and even death in some cases.

“Unfortunately, there’s no available vaccine for RSV in infants. They’re working on it, but there’s a history behind why there’s no available vaccine: catastrophes with early trials,” Johnson said.

Although the FDA approved the first RSV vaccine for use in the United States this year, the targeted demographic for the vaccine is individuals 60 years of age or older.

Why sulforaphane

“In my past work and my postdoc, my mentors looked at a metabolite that’s naturally occurring in cruciferous vegetables,” Johnson said. “They showed that consumption of a broccoli sprout-infused beverage could help rapidly detoxify air pollutants.”

Johnson was also aware of experimental data that showed that the same metabolite, sulforaphane, could be used to protect against severe RSV infection. Another study found that sulforaphane may neutralize toxins, reduce inflammation, protect DNA from mutations and slow down tumor growth.

“Now that we know that it can be transferred, we’re going to be following up both in the lab and out in the communities,” Johnson said.

Breastfeeding benefits mothers and babies

Breastfeeding is not only good for babies but for mothers too. Breastfeeding can reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and cancer while promoting bonding with the baby. The National Institutes of Health states that the benefits of breastfeeding for mothers include:

  1. Reduced risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  2. Faster recovery from childbirth and reduced postpartum bleeding
  3. Enhanced bonding with the baby and reduced stress levels
  4. Saving money on formula and feeding supplies

Considerations for breastfeeding mothers

Breastfeeding their babies can be challenging for mothers for various reasons, such as lack of support, low milk supply or social stigma. Therefore, it is important to support breastfeeding mothers and help them overcome any barriers they may face.

“With my daughter, I worked with a lactation consultant because it was really difficult to get her to latch,” Johnson said. “You kind of think, ‘Oh, they’re just going to breastfeed,’ but a lactation consultant was critical in ensuring that I could breastfeed her successfully.”

You can support nursing mothers by ensuring there is a comfortable and private space for them to breastfeed or pump, respecting their choices and preferences, and avoiding judgment or pressure.

A list of available lactation spaces on the Texas A&M campus in College Station can be found here.

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