Gluten free dietThe cause(s) of type 1 diabetes, the form of the disease that strikes children and young adults, remain unknown but new research suggests a mother’s gluten-free diet during pregnancy and lactation might minimize her baby’s risk of developing this childhood disease. The research suggests bacteria that develop in the mother’s intestinal tract influences her child’s risk of the disease. When a gluten-free diet is consumed, the intestinal bacteria seem to act as a protector against the disease.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when one’s immune system attacks certain cells in the pancreas. These pancreatic beta cells produce insulin, which is then used to regulate the sugar concentration in the bloodstream. When these beta cells are destroyed, as happens with childhood diabetes, it’s impossible to maintain a healthy balance of sugar in the blood.

Gluten is a widely consumed protein that comes from certain grains. Wheat is the most abundant source of gluten in the food supply but barley, rye, and triticale contain gluten proteins too. Triticale, cultivated mostly in Australia and Europe, is a hybridized cross between wheat and rye. Its main use is fodder for livestock but it’s also available for human consumption in health food stores and some breakfast cereals.

Camilla Harmann Friis Hansen and Professor Karsten Buschard are co-authors of the study on gluten and type 1 diabetes. Hansen is an assistant professor at Denmark’s University of Copenhagen Department of Veterinary Disease Biology and Buschard teaches at the Bartholin Institute at Rigshospitalet. The researchers tested their theory on mice, not humans, but physiological similarities suggest the findings could be much the same in both species.

The research team used 60 pregnant mice free of disease and of healthy weight. One group of 30 was fed a standard diet that includes foods that contain gluten. The other 30 consumed a gluten-free diet during pregnancy and throughout lactation. All offspring were followed and tested for type 1 diabetes until they reached maturity.

  • Some of the mouse pups whose mothers consumed the standard diet developed type 1 diabetes, usually around 13 weeks of age, which is roughly equivalent to age 8 years in a human.
  • No mouse pups from the gluten-free group developed diabetes.

Previous studies on human children have found a gluten-free diet eases the symptoms of type 1 diabetes. Other studies found children who are type 1 are more likely than a child without diabetes to develop celiac disease, a condition in which it is impossible to digest gluten.

Hansen hopes future studies will confirm going gluten-free during pregnancy and lactation will protect children at high risk of developing type 1 diabetes. Buschard would like to see new treatments for the disease based on his gluten studies.

Source: Hansen, Camilla HF, et al. “A maternal gluten-free diet reduces inflammation and diabetes incidence in the offspring of NOD mice.” Diabetes. American Diabetes Association. Apr 2, 2014. Web. May 15, 2014.