December 15, 2015
A few weeks ago, an exciting new study was published in Journal of the American Medical Association how infants at risk for Type 1 diabetes may benefit from early probiotics supplementation. The results are preliminary, but groundbreaking nevertheless.
Type 1 diabetes, unlike type 2 diabetes, is an autoimmune disease that develops when the body’s immune system mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This leaves the body without insufficient insulin to meet its needs.
Insulin is a hormone that helps cells use sugar from foods as fuel. It’s unclear what triggers Type 1 diabetes, whether it’s genetic or environmental, but one possible trigger is an imbalance in the gut. There is already so much evidence that probiotics have a positive effect on the immune system, so it’s not surprising that researchers are curious to see how they may affect autoimmunity.
In 2004, over 7,000 newborns selected from clinics in the U.S. and Europe and with a family history of Type 1 diabetes participated in a study, which is part of the ongoing, prospective Environmental Determinants of Diabetes in the Young (TEDDY). The goal of the study was to see if there is a connection between probiotics and islet autoimmunity.
Islet autoimmunity are the antibodies in the blood stream that can be measured and detected before type 1 diabetes presents with symptoms. The children were split into groups where they were either given drops of probiotic supplements or probiotics added to their formula, or took no supplementation at all. In this ongoing study, blood samples were collected from the children every 3 months between 3 and 48 months of age and every 6 months thereafter.
According to the article, details of infant feeding, including probiotic supplementation and infant formula use, were monitored from birth using questionnaires and diaries, and adjustments were made for family history of type 1 diabetes, HLA-DR-DQ genotypes, sex, birth order, mode of delivery, exclusive breastfeeding, birth year, child’s antibiotic use, and diarrheal history, as well as maternal age, probiotic use, and smoking.
So far, their research showed a correlation between reduced risks of islet autoimmunity in the children who received probiotics before 27 days of age. The children who received probiotics after 27 days of age or not at all did not show the same success. There also appeared to be a 60 percent decrease in risk of developing islet autoimmunity among those children who were at the highest genetic risk. “It’s too early to say if there is enough evidence that probiotics can prevent type 1 diabetes,” says the lead researcher Ulla Uusitalo, an associate professor in the department of pediatric epidemiology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, “…but if you know your child is high risk, you might ask your child’s pediatrician about adding probiotics early in the baby’s life.” Previous research has shown us that Bifidobacterium infantis is the predominant bacteria found in the healthy, breast fed, infant gut and as such stands to be the best infant probiotic supplement.
We have many questions of our own too. We know that most of the supplements used in the study contained mixtures of various Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species along with other commonly used probiotics so were the results dependent on the specific species given?
We know that the stability of probiotic bacteria is dependent on many factors and especially storage conditions. Were adjustments made for these different variables? It’s not clear from the study if this was a factor. Regardless, this is just the first step and we know that answers will come.
For now, one can only imagine that in time it may be possible to intervene or re-direct the human microbiome with probiotics if given early in life.
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