Image by William Herbert Galande, 1877 via Wikimedia Commons

If they held a contest, I’m fairly confident I’d win a prize for the World’s Weakest Immune System. A celiac sufferer (the real deal, diagnosed in 1967 at the age of two), I’ve always been quick to catch whatever bug is going around, and in fact I’m just over my sixth illness since January.

I’ve often wondered whether there’s a connection between my weak gut and my frequent infections, and whether it all has to do with not having been breastfed. (When I was born, in 1965, second-wave feminism frowned on breastfeeding, equating it with giving in to oppression, and suburbanites in my mom’s set considered it “barbaric.”)

The New Yorker has a fascinating book excerpt which supports that theory. It’s from I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by London-based science writer Ed Yong, to be published in August. The piece points to many of breast milk’s nutritional superior qualities, most importantly its apparent ability to fortify the body’s microbiome by feeding it with a variety of protective human milk oligosaccharides, or H.M.O.s, thus strengthening the immune system:

In a group setting, pathogens can easily bounce from one host to another, so animals need better ways of pro­tecting themselves. H.M.O.s provide one such defense. When a pathogen infects our guts, it almost always begins by latching onto glycans—sugar molecules—on the surfaces of our intestinal cells. But H.M.O.s bear a striking resemblance to these glycans, so pathogens sometimes stick to them instead. They act as decoys, drawing fire away from a baby’s own cells. They can block a roll call of gut villains, including Salmonella; Listeria; Vibrio cholerae, the culprit behind cholera; Campylobacter jejuni, the most common cause of bacterial diarrhea; Entamoeba histolytica, a vora­cious amoeba that causes dysentery and kills a hundred thousand people every year; and many virulent strains of E. coli. H.M.O.s may even be able to obstruct H.I.V., which might explain why more than half of infants who suckle from infected mothers don’t get infected, despite drinking virus-loaded milk for months. Every time scientists have pitted a pathogen against cultured cells in the presence of H.M.O.s, the cells have come out smil­ing.

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