Everything You Need to Know About Breasts
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Turning to the function of breasts for feeding infants, one of the purposes of breasts that’s not actually up for debate: How and why did lactation evolve?
Lactation evolved 200 million years ago, even before there were mammals as such. It evolved in the precursor to mammals, probably not as a food but as an anti-infection substance. It helped fight pathogens and helped the immune system, and many of those qualities have been conserved. Breast milk today is not just filled with nutritional substances but it’s filled with these immune system-boosting substances that scientists are just beginning to understand. There are proteins and enzymes and complex sugars that are really quite amazing at inhibiting parasites and killing E.coli on contact. It also seems to be filled with bacteria too, and so it may be inoculating the infant’s immune system or educating it as to which bacteria are good and which are bad.
It’s an amazing, complex, highly evolved substance. It’s the only food on the planet that’s really meant to be eaten by humans.
It seems that nearly everything breast-related is controversial and lactation is no exception. What’s your position on the breast-is-best debate?
Really, throughout human history there have been women who just didn’t want to breast-feed, and I totally get it. Breast-feeding can be really hard. One of the earliest professions was not prostitution but actually being a wet nurse.
Certainly in Western societies it’s really safe to be raised on formula. Where you see the more dramatic benefits from breast milk are with preemies; they do much, much better. When you go to developing countries where the water isn’t safe, formula isn’t a great option, and you can really use these extra immune-boosting benefits because of these pathogen rich environments. It makes sense from a public health standpoint to really advocate breast milk in developing countries. In our country, what would be great is to really support women who want to breast-feed through better workplace policies.
We see negative entities in breast milk as well. The weight of the book is devoted to ways that our breasts are, as you write, “the catchment for our environmental trespasses.” Why are we seeing toxins show up in breasts and breast milk, of all places?
A lot of these substances, if they exist in the breast they also exist in the blood and in a lot of cells in our body. But many of them are attracted to fat and our breasts are among the fattiest organs we have next to our brains. So breasts are these soft sponges and they soak up a lot of things in our environment. They’re incredibly good at converting these substances into breast milk. It’s a little creepy.
What about the transmission to nursing babies?
It appears that the benefits of breast milk still by far outweigh the risks, and even though we have these unnatural substances in our breast milk it still exists for the most part in small quantities. Nonetheless, we don’t really understand what the health effects of this are. It seems wise to look harder at these chemicals. If they’re not proven safe, maybe we should try to use something else. It would be great to provide greater incentives for manufacturers to put safer chemicals on the marketplace.
I’m so curious what you think of sexualized attempts at raising awareness about breast cancer — ads like the “Save the Boobs” PSA, which pictured a pair of bouncing bikini-clad breasts, and the explosion of “I (heart) boobies” bracelets.
I guess the sexualization of breasts is a reality and we’re not going to change that any time soon. I did like that those ads tried to reach a younger audience, so there you have it. Breasts are filled with contradictions and conflicting messages, but the more we can understand their complexity and appreciate that complexity, the healthier we’ll be down the road.