Iron, Bacterial Infections and Breast Milk 

A number of other factors in connecting breast-fed babies with decreased rates of asthma arise from a report by M. Colgan. 

He reports that substances in breast-milk include at least twenty enzymes such as lysozyme that attaches to susceptible bacteria, secretory IgA antibodies that neutralize many enteric pathogens and toxins, fibronectin that promotes uptake of microbial pathogens and other substances by phagocytic cells. 

Human milk also contains enormous numbers of highly active macrophages and lymphocytes that secrete certain lymphokines that may serve to protect host defense (Edelman R. Infant nutrition and immunity.  Ann NY Acad Sci, 1990;487:232-235.; Colgan M. Optimum Sports Nutrition Advanced Associated Press.; Colgan M. Infants, Nutrition and Immunity. Colgan Chronicles 1997;5:4).

One of the most important substances in human milk is glycoprotein lactoferrin that competes for the iron necessary for pathogenic microorganisms to replicate. 

When a human baby is born, its gastrointestinal tract is sterile, that is, it contains zero bacteria. It also contains zero iron. 

So, the only bacteria that can grow in it are the lactic acid bacteria - the only bacteria that can live in the absence of iron. 

These bacteria start infiltrating the gut within minutes of birth. It’s a nice evolutionary trick, as lactic acid bacteria are essential to digest breast milk. 

This lactic acid bacteria combined with glycoprotein lactoferrin from breast milk helps to protect the baby from harmful bacteria that grow greedily in the presence of iron. Breast milk also contains virtually no iron. (Weinberg ED. Iron and susceptibility to infectious disease. Science 1975;188:1038.)


We Are Born With a Reserve of Iron

The human baby is born with a reserve supply of iron in its tissues of approximately 75 mg per kilogram bodyweight. 

That’s about twice the iron level found in the tissue of healthy athletes. 

Your baby can grow healthy and normal for at least a year without requiring any external iron. Nature designed it that way to allow the immune system to develop before the onslaught of bacterial infections that occurs once the baby is weaned onto solid foods. 

Infant formulas that contain iron, increase infections and death rates in infants. There is now a lot of research that shows iron supplementation is detrimental to babies. 

A whole new medical text, Iron and Infection, cites hundreds of recent studies showing that excess iron in the body enables infections to flourish (Bullen JJ, Griffiths E.  Iron and Infection  New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987.;Weinberg ED. Iron and susceptibility to infectious disease.  Science  1974;184:952.;Weinberg ED. Iron and susceptibility to infectious disease.  Science  1975;188:1038.). 

A good example of this occurred in California in 1979. There was an outbreak of 60 cases of infant botulism. Researchers compared breast-fed babies (receiving no supplemental iron) with babies fed iron-supplemented infant formula.

The breast-fed babies all had milder cases of the disease and none died. The formula-fed babies all had severe cases of the disease and ten died. (Emory T. Iron and Your Health: Facts and Fallacies  Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1991).


Why is Iron in Baby Formulas?

So why do physicians still recommend iron for infants and why do baby food manufacturers fortify baby formulas with iron? 

It appears in this case, that medical science is years ahead of medical practice and modern baby-food marketing. 

Old medical texts, ignorant of the intricacies of nutrition, taught physicians only that iron is an important nutrient needed for making red blood cells and that pregnant women often become near anemic as blood is taken by the growing fetus. 

So they still feed pregnant women huge amounts of iron, 300 mg a day is commonplace, to try to boost their hemoglobin levels. Doesn’t work, never has. And it doesn’t put iron into the mother’s milk either. 

The illogical extension of this nonsense in then to feed the newborn with iron-supplemented formula, presumably to continue the iron the mother was getting. 

What it amounts to is that some academic physicians decided that they were smarter than Nature and could design a better formula than mother’s milk, putting in iron (and other nutrients) in amounts that devastate the infant’s gut. 

It is of note then that early infections have been related to higher risks of asthma in children. The existing research bears out the hypothesis that iron supplementation in formulas, and even children's nutritional supplements, may be indirect risk factors for asthma in children. 



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