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Can a Gluten Free Diet Help Prevent Type 1 Diabetes?

gluten free diet type 1 diabetes

A new study has shown that a gluten free diet may help prevent type 1 diabetes. Although the experiments were conducted in mice, the researchers note that this finding and previous research in humans suggest the elimination of gluten may hold a secret to type 1 diabetes.

Notice it says “a secret,” not “the secret” to type 1 diabetes. No one is ready to claim that a gluten free diet will wipe type 1 diabetes off the face of the earth. However, evidence is slowly growing to suggest that gluten has a role in the disease.

First I’d like to point out that scientists have been exploring possible links between gluten and type 1 diabetes for more than a decade. Thus the idea is not new, but the progress being made is quite revealing.

Let’s start with the newest study, which was done at the University of Copenhagen. The team of experts included researchers who have been doing studies on the impact of gluten and type 1 diabetes for nearly 15 years.

According to Professor Karsten Buschard from the Bartholin Institute at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen and one of the study’s co-authors, “This new study beautifully substantiates our research into a gluten-free diet as an effective weapon against type 1 diabetes.”

The study included 30 mouse pups whose mothers had been fed a gluten-free diet during pregnancy and lactation. Another 30 pups from mothers fed gluten served as a comparison group. The pups were given a diet that contained gluten.

The researchers discovered that pup from the gluten-free moms were protected against development of type 1 diabetes. This disease usually shows up after age 13 weeks in mice.

Why could a gluten-free diet help prevent this disease? Investigators found that the intestinal bacteria in moms fed a gluten free diet and their pups differed from that of mother mice fed gluten. It’s been shown that a healthy balance of bacteria in the intestinal tract supports the immune system and overall health and plays a role in the development of type 1 diabetes.

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Since type 1 diabetes develops so early in life, researchers know they have to find interventions that correspond with that timetable. Therefore, pregnancy and lactation seem to be good times on which to focus.

Further research could provide a breakthrough. Another co-author of the study, Assistant Professor Camilla Hartmann Friis Hansen, explained that if they can discover how gluten or specific bacteria in the intestinal tract change the immune system and impact beta cells, “this knowledge can be used to develop new treatments.”

Previous research on gluten and type 1 diabetes
Two 2012 studies entitled “Is the origin of type 1 diabetes in the gut?” and “Gut microbiota and type 1 diabetes” noted several critical factors that point to a relationship between gut (intestinal) environment and the autoimmune disease type 1 diabetes. Namely:

  • Animal study results show that changes in the microorganisms in the gut alter the development of autoimmune diabetes
  • Studies in humans indicate that the significant levels of Bacteroides and lack of bacteria that produce butyrate are associated with type 1 diabetes
  • Changes in the bacterial environment in the gut could lead to an increase in gut permeability, inflammation of the small intestine, and impaired tolerance to food antigens, all scenarios associated with type 1 diabetes
  • Both the pancreas (which has beta cells that produce insulin) and the gut belong to the same intestinal immune system
  • The human diet early in life could impact the development of beta-cell autoimmunity
  • Intestinal inflammation has been seen in children with type 1 diabetes
  • It seems probable that “our microbial environment does not support the healthy maturation of the gut and tolerance in the gut, and this leads to the increasing type 1 diabetes”

The author concluded that the fight against type 1 diabetes should focus on interventions that target the immune system in the gut. That means factors such as gluten and probiotics (good or beneficial bacteria) should be on the radar.

Exactly how healthcare consumers can use this information is not clear. Although much more research is needed, women may want to ask their healthcare providers about this research, especially if they are thinking about getting pregnant and/or there is a history of type 1 diabetes in the family.

Should women follow a gluten-free diet while they are pregnant and breastfeeding? Should they put their young children on a gluten-free diet? Would probiotics be helpful for mothers, infants, or both? Could a gluten free diet help prevent type 1 diabetes?

Read more about gluten free labeling

Hansen CHF et al. A maternal gluten-free diet reduces inflammation and diabetes incidence in the offspring of NOD mice. Diabetes 2014 Apr 2 published online. DOI:10.2337/db13-1612
University of Copenhagen
Vaarala O. Gut microbiota and type 1 diabetes. A Review of Diabetic Studies 2012 Winter; 9(4): 251-59
Vaarala O. Is the origin of type 1 diabetes in the gut? Immunology and Cell Biology 2012 Mar; 90(3): 271-76

Image: Public Domain Photos



advancement in this field will lead to a breakthrough in our understanding of diabetes
Jennie, I hope you are right!