The Perfect Duo: 130 HMO Sugars in Breast Milk Feed the Good Baby Bug
The HMOs (human milk oligosaccharides) in breastmilk have been in the news a lot recently. This has lots of moms wondering what exactly an HMO is, and whether a single chemically-made HMO added to baby formula could be as beneficial to their babies’ immune systems as breastmilk. Let’s take a closer look at the incredible variety and number of HMOs in breastmilk, and find out!
The #3 Solid Ingredient in Breastmilk: HMO Sugars
After lactose and fat, HMO sugar is third biggest solid ingredient in mother’s milk. Is that why children later love candy? No. These are a different kind of sugar, not your average fruit or candy sugars. They are special, complex chains called HMOs. They don’t actually nourish the baby directly. When a baby drinks them in mother’s milk, HMOs travel to the baby’s gut as PRE-biotics, in other words, the perfect food for the PRO-biotics, the good bugs in a baby’s gut. Good bugs are especially beneficial in keeping the baby’s digestive system functioning smoothly.
The Perfect Duo: One Good Baby Bug Eats All the HMO Sugars
Babies have a unique PRO-biotic in their guts called “B. infantis”. This special, good baby bug has evolved to be the perfect working partner to the HMO sugars in breastmilk. It is the only bug that can digest every little pearl in the complex HMO chains. Other good bugs in the baby’s gut can only digest parts of the HMOs—and bad bugs are too primitive to digest HMOs at all. That’s why bad bugs mostly starve and die when a baby gets breastmilk, leaving mainly good bugs and a healthy digestive system.
Good Baby Bug Builds Protective Shield to Block Out Illness
HMO sugars don’t just feed the unique baby bug “B. infantis”; they activate it to do two crucial jobs. First, “B. infantis” produces substances that seem to help the immune response to mature, which then helps to control inflammation. Second, when activated by eating HMOs, “B. infantis” apparently instructs the baby’s gut to make proteins that seal off the gut (intestinal) walls. This creates protective barriers that stop bad bugs from getting into the blood causing illness. The fascinating thing is that “B. infantis” only does this extra work when it gets its instructions from breastmilk HMOs. If “B. infantis” only gets lactose, (as in formula), it eats it, but it doesn’t tell the gut to make protective protein shields.
HMO Sugars Actually Boost Baby’s Immune System Now and Later
That’s why we say that baby’s immune system has a sweet tooth! Those HMO strings of sugars flow into the digestive tract, feeding good bugs and starving off bad bugs. They help protect the baby from everything from minor illnesses like common colds, scaly skin, and diarrhoea, to life-threatening diseases like necrotizing enterocolitis (which especially affects premature babies). They also help prevent childhood illnesses including allergies, type-1 diabetes, and autoimmune diseases like gluten intolerance. In fact, the early establishment of a healthy gut has even been connected to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type-2 diabetes and bowel disease in adulthood.
How Many HMO Sugars Are There?
How many HMOs does it take to properly feed a baby’s gut? Most moms have around 130 different HMOs in their breastmilk. So far, scientists have identified around 200 different HMOs, so not every mother has every HMO. The exact combination of HMOs in a mom’s breastmilk depends on the mom’s individual development and on her environment. Recently, formula makers discovered how to chemically create one single HMO out of the 200 natural HMOs found in breast milk. This particular HMO is quite common and is found in the breastmilk of about 80% of moms. Can one HMO do the work of 130 different HMOs found in mother’s milk? Gut instinct (see what we did there!) tells us this is very unlikely. Given that there are so many different HMOs in milk, and such a diverse range of bugs in the gut, there’s still a long way to go, to get anywhere near the power of breastmilk!
The fact is that scientists are just beginning to understand the power of HMOs and their “B. infantis” friends, when it comes to making a baby’s gut and immune system healthy for life. However, they have plenty of evidence that the sheer variety and number of HMOs in breastmilk are unmatched, and provide babies with lifelong immune protection!