New research suggests that women with gestational diabetes who breastfeed for more than two months following delivery may lower their risk of progressing to type 2 diabetes by half. The Kaiser Permanente study, published Nov. 23 in Annals of Internal Medicine, also found that the longer women breastfeed, the lower their odds of developing type 2 diabetes.
“Both the level and duration of breastfeeding may offer unique benefits to women during the post-delivery period for protection against development of type 2 diabetes after gestational diabetes pregnancy,” lead study author Erica P. Gunderson, PhD, an epidemiologist and senior research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, said in a news release.
Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) – high blood glucose during pregnancy – is diagnosed in 5 percent to 9 percent of all pregnancies in the U.S. Women with gestational diabetes are up to seven times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes within several years after pregnancy than women who do not have the complication.
The American Diabetes Association recommends that women with GDM breastfeed their babies. However, previous studies on the effect of breastfeeding on the subsequent development of type 2 diabetes have produced inconsistent findings.
For the new study, Gunderson and her colleagues followed more than 1,000 Kaiser Permanent members in Northern California who were diagnosed with GDM during pregnancy between 2008 and 2011 to see if they developed type 2 diabetes within two years post-delivery. Approximately 75 percent of the study participants were Hispanic, Asian or African-American.
The researchers conducted in-person exams, which included glucose-tolerance tests at 6 to 9 weeks post-delivery to establish baseline readings. Follow-up exams were done annually for two years.
Compared to women who didn’t breastfeed at all or who stopped within two months of delivery, those who breastfed for up to five months were 45 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Women who breastfed for up to 10 months were 50 percent less likely to develop diabetes and those who continued to breastfeed longer lowered the risk by 57 percent. Overall, almost 12 percent of the women in the study developed type 2 diabetes within two years after delivery.
According to Gunderson, breastfeeding provides the body a recovery period after pregnancy, when the body must go into overdrive with insulin production to keep blood sugar levels under control.
“Lactation gives the insulin-producing cells in the body a rest because they don’t have to make so much insulin to lower blood glucose,” Gunderson told HealthDay. “Breastfeeding uses up glucose and fat in the blood because those nutrients are transferred to from the bloodstream into the breast tissue for milk production,” she explained.
Gunderson noted that study results held even after taking into account a wide range of factors, including maternal and newborn health, lifestyle behaviors, and changes in the mother’s postpartum weight. She concluded their findings “highlight the importance of prioritizing breastfeeding education and support for women with gestational diabetes as part of early diabetes prevention efforts by healthcare systems.”