Healthy Gut at Birth Lowers Risk of Type 1 Diabetes


Written by Clare Abercrombie, Lauren Houser, CRNP and Georgia Tetlow, MD Over 500 microbial species inhabit our gastrointestinal tract, equivalent to approximately 6 pounds of our body weight! As more and more research emerges, an increasing number of common diseases and conditions appear to be linked to an unhealthy microbiome. This blog post will explore type 1 diabetes, it’s link to infant gut health, and an integrative approach to prevention of the condition.

Brief Overview of Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, affects nearly 5% of people struggling with diabetes and is predominately diagnosed in children and young adults. This condition occurs when the immune system destroys beta cells within the pancreas. The beta cells are responsible for making insulin, the all-important hormone that permits glucose to enter our cells. Unfortunately, when insulin production is radically reduced or halted in Type 1 diabetes, cells throughout the body die and glucose accumulates in our blood. This increase in blood glucose or “high blood sugar” leads to recurrent dehydration, weight loss, a life threatening metabolic complication called diabetes ketoacidosis (DKA) and damage to nerves and small blood vessels.  Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition whose direct cause is undetermined. We do know that increased risk can be related to genetic and environmental factors, and/or having a pre-existing autoimmune condition.

The Link Between a Healthy Gut and Type 1 Diabetes

A baby’s microbiome is colonized at birth by going through the birth canal during delivery—how? The infants mouth is open and the gut is “seeded” by beneficial flora from the vaginal tract. The infant’s microbiome is further supported through breast milk.

An infant’s beneficial gut bacteria contributes to physiological developments including an adaptive immune system and the normal formation and growth of blood vessels. Of note, a recent study from the American Diabetes Association directly linked the microbial biodiversity of the infants’ physical environment to the development of type  1 diabetes. When an infant who has an increased risk of developing diabetes is exposed to a physical environment that lacks bacterial diversity (for example an urban locale compared to a farm), they are more likely to develop juvenile diabetes.

Research at the University of the Netherlands has also found a link between children living with type 1 diabetes and lowered intestinal microbial diversity. The researchers studied bacterial diversity and population within the gastrointestinal tract of children living with type 1 diabetes and compared it to children without diabetes. They found that children with type 1 diabetes had fewer bacteria and less bacterial diversity within their GI tract. This suggests that the microbiome directly effects juvenile diabetes and could potentially lead to exciting new treatments for Type 1 Diabetes.

An Integrative Approach: Prevention of Type 1 Diabetes

Until recently, the medical community has concluded that type 1 diabetes is not preventable. However, with recent findings connecting the development of type 1 diabetes to gut health, we now know that much can be done—as early as when infants are still in utero. Offering quality probiotic supplements to pregnant mothers or women hoping to get pregnant may lower the child’s risk of developing type 1 diabetes. Mothers with a family history or who are at an increased risk of developing diabetes may want to explore the health of their own microbiome prior to conception or during pregnancy to help decrease the risk in the child. This can be accomplished through a validated—and non-invasive--comprehensive stool analysis. Ask your integrative provider!

While C-sections are lifesaving and medically necessary, the association between healthy gut bacteria and Type I diabetes further highlights the benefits of vaginal childbirth. Natural birth boosts the baby’s adaptive immune system and passes healthy microbiota from mother to child, thus helping to reduce the risk of autoimmune conditions, allergies and asthma. Breastfeeding also provides exposure to healthy bacteria and the nutrients needed to support a healthy microbiome.