Bilirubin as an Antioxidant

Contrary to what you often will hear about how bilirubin levels increasing in a newborn is not a good thing, there is new research which is showing the importance of the presence of bilirubin.

Bilirubin has the ability to function as an antioxidant in the brain, scavenging free radicals and protecting the brain against oxidative damage.

“When women breastfeed, the babies have higher levels of bilirubin and are healthier. Babies with higher bilirubin levels are more disease-resistant,” said Dr. Sylvain Dore of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland. “Bilirubin also protects against retinopathy in premature babies.”

Dr. Dore has done research on the neuroprotective effect of bilirubin in the hippocampus. His studies have indicated that low concentrations of bilirubin decreased oxygen-radical mediated injury, suggesting that bilirubin could act as an antioxidant.

Dore further experimented on cultured neurons showing that bilirubin protects against oxidative stress. The enzyme hemeoxygenase is responsible for making bilirubin. In these experiments researchers prevented bilirubin synthesis by eliminating the gene for hemeoxygenase and found, as a result, twice the level of stroke damage in mice.

There is also some belief amongst medical professionals that bilirubin is a bacteriostatic compound which acts to slow or eliminate bacterial growth and therefore give an advantage to babies with higher levels of jaundice. This theory would contribute to the fewer infections in breastfed babies, whose bili counts often descend at a slower rate.

These studies shed new light on the way in which bilirubin in a newborn should be viewed. There is no reason to overreact to bili counts ranging up to low 20′s as long as the mother is frequently nursing (every 60 – 90 minutes during the mother’s waking hours and no more than two stretches of four hours maximum at night), baby is wetting and the counts have begun to slow in ascension or have begun their descent.

Mother must be diligent at following a pattern of frequent nursing until jaundice is gone, even if it includes having to wake the baby, because jaundice tends to make a baby sleepy.