Environmental Triggers of Type 1 Diabetes

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Recent studies show about one fifth of Caucasians are genetically susceptible to Type 1 diabetes, but only about 10 percent of this group actually will progress to the stage of clinical disease. The reasons some cases become full blown and others remain latent are only beginning to be understood, but it’s clear that the process can be activated and accelerated by a range of environmental factors.

According to the American Diabetes Association, medical researcher Mikael Knip observed that “progression to clinical diabetes requires the combination of genetic disease susceptibility, a critically timed trigger, and high subsequent exposure to a driving antigen.” Usually this process already has taken place in early childhood, which is why Type 1 often is referred to as “juvenile diabetes.” Although early onset is more common, some cases don’t emerge until later in life.

For those who remain undiagnosed into adulthood, prolonged travel to a foreign region or moving from a low-incidence to a high-incidence region can increase the likelihood of the disease to emerge. Exposure to a new range of novel viruses and/or bacteria, combined with extreme physical stress, can cause the body’s natural immune response to “misfire” in a way that selectively attacks its own insulin-producing pancreatic cells.

Although exposure to some new antigens is largely unavoidable during travel, it’s important to employ the common sense precautions of any international traveler to developing countries:

• Ensure consistent water purification (through boiling or purification tablets)

• Observe food preparation methods (no raw salads, only visibly well cooked foods)

• Avoid unpasteurized dairy products

• Use mosquito-repellent clothing or topical solutions (both day and night).

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