Nutritional programming by glucocorticoids in breast milk: Targets, mechanisms and possible implications

Jonneke J. Hollanders, Annemieke C. Heijboer, Bibian van der Voorn, Joost Rotteveel, Martijn J.J. Finken

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


Vertical transmission of glucocorticoids via breast milk might pose a mechanism through which lactating women could prepare their infants for the postnatal environment. The primary source of breast-milk glucocorticoids is probably the systemic circulation. Research from our group showed that milk cortisol and cortisone concentrations follow the diurnal rhythm of maternal hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis activity, with a higher abundance of cortisone compared to cortisol. Measurement of breast-milk glucocorticoid concentrations is challenging due to possible cross-reactivity with progestagens and sex steroids, which are severely elevated during pregnancy and after parturition. This requires precise methods that are not hindered by cross reactivity, such as LC–MS/MS. There are some data suggesting that breast-milk glucocorticoids could promote intestinal maturation, either locally or after absorption into the systemic circulation. Breast-milk glucocorticoids might also have an effect on the intestinal microbiome, although this has not been studied thus far. Findings from studies investigating the systemic effects of breast-milk glucocorticoids are difficult to interpret, since none took the diurnal rhythm of glucocorticoids in breast milk into consideration, and various analytical methods were used. Nevertheless, glucocorticoids in breast milk might offer a novel potential pathway for signal transmission from mothers to their infants.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)397-408
Number of pages12
JournalBest Practice and Research: Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2017


  • gastrointestinal microbiome
  • gut microbiota
  • human milk
  • infant
  • newborn
  • steroids

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