The dietary protein known as gluten may contribute to the development of Type 1 diabetes, according to a new animal study from researchers at Mayo Clinic. An estimated three million people in the United States have Type 1.
Gluten is the name for a family of proteins found in certain grains, including wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. Both human and animal studies have indicated that gluten may play a causal role in the development of Type 1 diabetes, but the research has not shown the mechanisms by which this might happen.
To investigate this question, researchers used nonobese diabetic mice, or mice that are specially bred to be at high risk of developing Type 1 diabetes. The mice were raised on either a gluten-containing diet or a gluten-free diet. The mice’s blood glucose levels were measured, and their bacterial flora were monitored to detect changes in their intestinal microbiome, or the composition of bacteria living in their gut.
The researchers found that the mice raised on the gluten-free diet had a significantly lower rate of Type 1 diabetes than the gluten-eating mice. After this was established, the scientists then added gluten into the diets of the gluten-free mice and found that the protective effect was lost and these mice began developing high blood glucose levels. The addition of gluten also had a noticeable impact on the bacterial flora of the mice, indicating one possible way in which gluten may impact the risk for diabetes.
“While this is purely an animal-based study, it allows us to manipulate these mice in such a way as to study the effects of certain diets, and these diet changes seem to make an impact on the likelihood of developing the mouse equivalent of Type 1 diabetes,” noted study author Joseph Murray, MD.
Although the research may not be beneficial for those who have already been diagnosed with Type 1, the researchers think it may be useful for people who are at risk of the condition. “It’s possible in [the] future, if we have some way of restoring the cells that produce insulin, [we'll] want to make sure [to] adapt or alter the immune system so it doesn’t want to attack these very crucial cells for our survival,” Murray added.
The scientists plan to study the effects in humans to see how various diets affect the gut bacteria and how those bacteria influence the immune system. In the meantime, however, they are not encouraging people to change their diets.
For more information about the research, read the article “Microbiome Changed by Gluten Increases Incidences of Type 1 Diabetes” or see the study in the journal PLOS ONE. And to learn more about gluten and diabetes, click here.