There are choices we make every day that affect our health: what we eat (apple or the apple pie), what we drink (lemon water or sweet tea), how much physical activity we get (elevator or stairs). These choices have a short-term, as well as a long-term, impact on our weight, our heart health, our risk for Type-2 diabetes, and our risk for breast cancer, to name a few.
Many choices a mom makes during that first year postpartum have a long-term impact on the health of her baby, as well as her own health. When it comes to breastfeeding, it is something you can do for a short period of time, particularly in the grand scheme of your life, and receive a lifetime of benefits, including reducing the risk of breast cancer by up to 20%.
How is that even possible? It has a lot to do with estrogen, the reproductive hormone in women responsible for the development and regulation of the female reproductive system and sex characteristics. Too little estrogen can cause hot flashes and mood swings, while too much can encourage breast cancers to grow.
There are several reasons why pregnancy and breastfeeding impact breast health.
- When breast cells are formed in adolescence, they are not fully developed. They are immature and very active (lots of cell growth) until your first full-term pregnancy. The immature breast cells respond to estrogen, as well as hormone-disrupting chemicals in products. Your first full-term pregnancy makes the breast cells grow in a more regular way. This is the main reason why pregnancy helps protect against breast cancer.
- Most women have fewer menstrual cycles when they’re breastfeeding (added to the nine missed periods during pregnancy) resulting in lower estrogen levels.
- Many women tend to eat more nutritious foods and follow healthier lifestyles (limit smoking and alcohol use) while breastfeeding.
- Making milk 24/7 limits breast cells’ ability to act irregularly.
So, for around 1%*of your life, you could breastfeed, and that’s 20% worth feeding for!
* According to the CDC, in 2015 the life expectancy for women at birth was 81.2 years. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db267.htm