Reduction of Infection Risks
Studies have shown that breastfeeding reduces the risk of infectious diseases in children by up to 50 percent. Additional studies suggest that human milk oligosaccharides contribute significantly to reducing this risk.
The simple but highly effective mechanism of action used by human milk oligosaccharides is very well understood. Human milk oligosaccharides intervene directly in the ability of pathogens to recognize the human body as a host and thereby trigger an infection.
Pathogens mostly initiate an infection by binding to specific structures present on the surface of human cells. These surface-bound structures are vital to certain body functions, such as the immune system, cell to cell communication, or the specification of blood groups. Pathogens, including bacteria and viruses, use these surface-bound structures as receptors to identify their host as human and to gain entry into the cell and thereby trigger an infection. It is believed that over 70% off all human pathogens use cell standing oligosaccharide structures as receptor or co-receptor for their infection.
Human milk oligosaccharides dissolved in food imitate these surface-bound structures and therefore act as decoys. Pathogens cannot distinguish between human milk oligosaccharides and genuine surface-bound structures on the cell membrane. Pathogens entering the body therefore bind to the human milk oligosaccharides, and this irreversible process makes it impossible for the pathogen to subsequently bind to cells because the structures that interact with the receptors are already blocked. The pathogens are therefore excreted together with the indigestible human milk oligosaccharides and the risk of infection is reduced.
Most pathogens enter the body through the digestive tract or the respiratory system. Because human milk oligosaccharides are ingested with food, the sugars are present in high concentrations in the digestive tract. However, human milk oligosaccharides can also be absorbed in the gut so they pass into the blood stream and circulate around the body. This means the sugars can exert their healthy effect all over the body, which is known as a systemic effect, and may explain how they can protect against infections in areas of the body far away from the gut such as the lungs, the brain, and the auditory canal.