General Benefits of Human Milk Oligosaccharide
Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), are the sugar molecules found in high concentrations in breast milk. HMOs are found exclusively in human breast milk, standing as the third most ample component that is solid. The first two being lactose and fat. HMOs are found in nearly 200 different structures within human breast milk. Interestingly enough, for infants, HMOs are indigestible. However, they do serve as a prebiotic, feeding the bacteria found throughout the intestines. This helps build a healthy intestinal flora, and in turn, reduces the risk of intestinal infections, diarrhea, and respiratory disease. Many studies have also examined the positive effects on adults.
Benefits of HMOs
As previously mentioned, recent studies have shown that HMOs are extremely beneficial in many areas of life. To begin, here are some benefits that were discovered while studying the effect of HMOs in infants. While they provide no nutritional value, HMOs promote good bacteria in the gut, block pathogens, and strengthen the gut barrier. They do so by mimicking the surface of intestinal cells. The HMO acts as the receptor for the virus so when the intestine is exposed to a virus, instead of binding to the intestinal cells and filling them with mucus, they bind to the HMOs. This diverts the effects of the virus and leaves humans unaffected. Studies show that infants who are breastfed seem to have fewer infections and faster recovery compared to babies who are fed with formula.
About 70-80% of the body’s immune cells are found in the lining of the intestines. This means that an improvement in gut health does not only provide safety against gut infections but viruses in general. In addition, research shows that HMOs provide children with sialic acid residues. These are fundamental nutrients for brain development and mental abilities in children. A trial in 2008 showed that babies who were breastfed had a cognitive advantage over babies who were bottle-fed. The trial showed an IQ difference that was apparent at as early as age six. Other studies have been done as well that determine various applications for HMOs.
The following studies have examined the effects of HMOs on adults. One application was to study the effects on bone health. The results showed that it improved bone health by increasing mineralization, density, and structure of the bones. It also increased the absorption of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, which are essential for superior bone health. In the future, this treatment might be put into use in combination with traditional medicine.
Researchers have also begun studying how HMOs may serve as an anti-bacterial treatment against GBS, also known as Group B Strep Infection. GBS is a commonly occurring infection in the vagina or rectum of a pregnant woman. Another study showed that HMO supplementation in daily doses modified the microflora found in the intestines of adults, leading to an overall healthier gut and digestive tract. HMOs may also aid in treating allergic diseases. Two forms of HMOs (2’FL and 6’SL) have demonstrated anaphylactic effects. The study was performed on mice and showed that they reduced the effects of food allergies by inhibiting the production of inflammatory signals.
Importance of Gut and Brain Health in Humans
When you hear the term bacteria, it commonly holds a negative connotation. While some bacteria are responsible for illness, others are extremely important for your immune system and other vital bodily functions. The collection of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and microscopic living things make up a microbiome in your gut. Without this microbiome, it would be difficult for humans to survive. From the moment you are born, your microbiome affects your body. As you grow older your microbiome diversifies as you are exposed to new bacteria.
Good gut health allows for efficient communication with the intestinal cells, better food digestion, and prevention of disease-causing bacteria from infecting the intestinal walls. Other studies suggest that good gut health may affect heart health, brain health, and control blood sugar as well. In the brain, certain bacteria induce the production of neurotransmitters. One example being serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter that is largely made in the stomach. In addition, because the gut and brain are connected by many nerves, the communication between the two may be much more efficient. Overall, this brain health is important in controlling our emotions as well as cognitive intelligence.
Although research is still being performed to study the full effects of HMOs, it seems very promising in improving the overall health of humans, starting with our gut health as infants.