Breastfeeding effects on DNA methylation in the offspring: A systematic literature review

Fernando Pires Hartwig, Christian Loret de Mola, Neil Davies, Cesar Gomes Victora, Caroline Relton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)
377 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Breastfeeding benefits both infants and mothers. Recent research shows long-term health and human capital benefits among individuals who were breastfed. Epigenetic mechanisms have been suggested as potential mediators of the effects of early-life exposures on later health outcomes. We reviewed the literature on the potential effects of breastfeeding on DNA methylation.

Methods: Studies reporting original results and evaluating DNA methylation differences according to breastfeeding/breast milk groups (e.g., ever vs. never comparisons, different categories of breastfeeding duration, etc) were eligible. Six databases were searched simultaneously using Ovid, and the resulting studies were evaluated independently by two reviewers.

Results: Seven eligible studies were identified. Five were conducted in humans. Studies were heterogeneous regarding sample selection, age, target methylation regions, methylation measurement and breastfeeding categorisation. Collectively, the studies suggest that breastfeeding might be negatively associated with promoter methylation of LEP (which encodes an an anorexigenic hormone), CDKN2A (involved in tumour supression) and Slc2a4 genes (which encodes an insulin-related glucose transporter) and positively with promoter methylation of the Nyp (which encodes an orexigenic neuropeptide) gene, as well as influence global methylation patterns and modulate epigenetic effects of some genetic variants.

Conclusions: The findings from our systematic review are far from conclusive due to the small number of studies and their inherent limitations. Further studies are required to understand the actual potential role of epigenetics in the associations of breastfeeding with later health outcomes. Suggestions for future investigations, focusing on epigenome-wide association studies, are provided.


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