Breastfeeding and the gut-brain axis: Is there a role for melatonin?

George Anderson, Cathy Vaillancourt, Michael Maes, Russel J. Reiter

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


The benefits of breastfeeding over formula feed are widely appreciated. However, for many mothers breastfeeding is not possible, highlighting the need for a significant improvement in the contents of formula feed. In this article, the overlooked role of melatonin and the melatonergic pathways in breast milk and in the regulation of wider breast milk components are reviewed. There is a growing appreciation that the benefits of breastfeeding are mediated by its effects in the infant gut, with consequences for the development of the gut-brain axis and the immune system. The melatonergic pathways are intimately associated with highly researched processes in the gut, gut microbiome and gut-brain axis. As the melatonergic pathways are dependent on the levels of serotonin availability as a necessary precursor, decreased melatonin is linked to depression and depression-associated disorders. The association of breastfeeding and the gut-brain axis with a host of medical conditions may be mediated by their regulation of processes that modulate depression susceptibility. The biological underpinnings of depression include increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, oxidative stress, kynurenine pathway activity and dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis, all of which can decrease melatonergic pathway activity. The inclusion of the melatonergic pathways in the biological interactions of breast milk and gut development has significant theoretical and treatment implications, as well as being important to the prevention of a host of infant-, child- and adult-onset medical conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)185-195
Number of pages11
JournalBiomolecular Concepts
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Sep 2017


  • Breast milk components
  • Breastfeeding
  • Gut microbiota
  • Gut permeability
  • Gut-brain axis
  • Infancy
  • Melatonin
  • Sudden infant death syndrome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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