It is estimated that as many as 3 million Americans have type 1 diabetes, and the number of children under the age of 14 diagnosed with the condition is expected to rise 3% annually worldwide. But new research suggests that mothers may be able to curb this prevalence in children by adopting a gluten-free diet during pregnancy and lactation.
In the study, published in the journal Diabetes, researchers from Denmark compared 30 mouse pups from gluten-fed mothers with 30 pups from mothers fed a gluten-free diet.
Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat, barley, rye and triticale. A gluten-free diet is the main treatment for celiac disease - a condition in which the digestive system is unable to tolerate gluten.
The researchers found that when mouse mothers ate a gluten-free diet, the intestinal bacteria in both the mothers and pups changed, which appeared to have a protective effect against development of type 1 diabetes in the pups.
Intestinal flora play an important role in immune system development, the researchers say, as well as the development of type 1 diabetes, which occurs when the body's immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells (beta cells) in the pancreas.
The researchers note that in mice, onset of type 1 diabetes usually occurs around 13 weeks of age. But the offspring of mothers who were fed a gluten-free diet did not develop the condition, even though they ate a normal diet themselves that contained gluten.
Researchers 'optimistic' that findings can be applied to humans
Although they admit that findings using mouse models may not always apply to humans, they are optimistic in this case. They point out that past research in humans has shown that in children with type 1 diabetes, a gluten-free diet appears to offer benefits.
Study co-author Camilla Harmann Friis Hansen, an assistant professor of the Department of Veterinary Disease Biology, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, adds:
"We therefore hope that a gluten-free diet during pregnancy and lactation may be enough to protect high-risk children from developing diabetes later in life."
The researchers note that as yet, they have not been able to initiate a large-scale clinical trial to further investigate the association between a maternal gluten-free diet and type 1 diabetes.
Could eating a gluten-free diet during pregnancy protect a child from developing type 1 diabetes? Researchers say their mouse study suggests this may be the case.
But study co-author Prof. Karsten Buschard, of the Bartholin Institute at Rigshospitalet in Denmark, says that understanding how gluten or specific intestinal bacteria changes the immune system and beta-cell physiology could open the doors to new treatments for type 1 diabetes.
"This new study beautifully substantiates our research into a gluten-free diet as an effective weapon against type 1 diabetes," she adds.
It is not only a gluten-free diet that has been associated with prevention of diabetes. Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study indicating that chocolate may prevent type 2 diabetes and obesity.
A more recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA, revealed that increased coffee consumption may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, while research from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, NY, found that eating grilled meat could increase the risk of diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.