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Q&A on maternal nutrition with Dr. Sheila Innis

August 09, 2013
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Dr. Sheila Innis and Dr. Bernd Keller, from CFRI's Diabetes, Nutrition & Metabolism research cluster, recently published a paper in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (July 2013) on research they did that identified new compounds transferred from the diets of breastfeeding mothers to their milk. We spoke to Dr. Innis about these findings, and what it means for new mothers and their babies.

What did you discover as a result of your research?

Our research focuses on trying to better understand how human milk promotes healthy infant development, such as how different elements of the foods that mothers eat or from their surrounding environment affect their infants. There are many components in food that have important health benefits, such as those found in fruits and vegetables, and the field of research that is involved in finding and identifying these components is quite complex.

As we were looking at milk from women participating in our studies, we found a large amount of something that had never been reported before. This meant we would need to identify the chemical structure, then get into the lab and synthesize the structure in order to figure out what we had discovered. Based on the structure, we tentatively identified the compound as hypaphorine. We synthesized hypaphorine and compared it to the compound we had found in the mothers’ milks; we confirmed that it was indeed hypaphorine. Our next step was to find out where it came from.

What is hypaphorine?

Hypaphorine is similar to the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is converted into serotonin, which is involved in sleep, appetite control, and is also a target for many depressive disorders. Very little is known about hypaphorine, although some information suggests that it can influence sleep.

If this naturally occuring compound is able to alter the serotonin system, it would be a major finding.

Where is hypaphorine found?

Hyphaphorine has been identified in chick peas and lentils. It had never been identified in milk or in humans. The women who had given us milk did not eat large amounts of chick peas or lentils.

Because chick peas and lentils are legumes, we guessed that the source might be peanuts, since these are also legumes; hypaphorine had never been described in peanuts.

We next took peanuts and a variety of others beans and plant foods and searched for sources of hypaphorine.

We demonstrated that peanuts are high in hypaphorine.

The next step was to show that if a breastfeeding mother eats peanuts, hypaphorine is transferred unaltered into her milk. We did this and showed that hypahorine is present in high amounts in the milk of women who eat peanuts.

Is there a benefit to hypaphorine being present in some human milk?

We are the first to have identified hypaphorine in human milk; as hypaphorine is not yet well understood, no one has looked at the potential benefits to the health and nutrition of breastfeeding mothers and infants.

What does your research mean for nursing mothers and their infants?

Recent guidelines for breastfeeding have been increased to six months, which means that infants should receive their mother’s milk at every feed, every day for six months. 

Our discovery of hypaphorine as a result of mothers’ legume consumption reminds us that many things are transferred to an infant from its mother through her milk, and that we must pay attention to the diet and environment of breastfeeding mothers with the understanding that a mother’s nutrition is fundamental to the health of her infant. 

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