You may have seen the Guardian’s headline yesterday reporting that a high-fibre diet ‘could prevent type 1 diabetes.’ But what’s the full, accurate story?
Firstly, it’s always worth repeating that there is no evidence that diet is responsible for type 1 diabetes.
You cannot yet reduce your risk of the condition through ‘medicinal foods’ because type 1 diabetes is a complex condition, and we don’t yet fully understand why it develops. For this reason, a simple change in diet certainly cannot alter the path of type 1, or cure the condition.
But new JDRF-funded research, announced this week and the focus of the Guardian’s headline, has nonetheless taught us a little more about gut bacteria and type 1 diabetes.
The gut and type 1 diabetes
A growing body of research is showing that the types and proportion of types of bacteria living in our gut can impact on our overall health, and could be implicated in some autoimmune conditions like type 1 diabetes.
The new research
A team from Monash University in Australia, part funded by JDRF, discovered that feeding specially designed supplements to mice with a mouse version of type 1 diabetes, alongside their normal food routine, allowed two types of bacteria to thrive in their gut.
These bacteria produce chemicals that, combined, appear to reduce the number of immune cells that can attack insulin-producing cells. Mice who would usually develop type 1, but who were fed both supplements, did not develop the condition.
The two chemicals produced by the bacteria staged a double act: one removed the attacking cells and the other suppressed the autoimmune response. The overall outcome is that the attack on the beta cells is stalled, and the pancreas remains functional.
This all sounds promising – if everyone at risk of type 1 could simply take some supplements and never develop the condition, we could be rid of type 1 diabetes forever. But while studies into gut bacteria, and the link to autoimmune conditions is a growing area of research, as ever, we must remain cautious.
Mice studies are very helpful for giving us clues about how human bodies might work, but there is still a big difference between a mouse and a person. This is particularly so in the gut, and how the gut behaves in a lab bred strain of very similar mice can only give us a limited view of the way the human gut works in very different people, with different genetic and environmental backgrounds.
We will need to see a trial in people before we can consider this gut interaction a potential preventative treatment.
It is also important to remember that for a preventative therapy based on this research to work in the future, we will also have to continue researching the causes and risk factors for type 1, so as to know who to administer preventative treatments to.
Can food be medicine?
Using food as medicine, ‘neutraceuticals’, is an area of great interest, because if we could treat or prevent a condition through diet we would not need to worry about the harmful effects of some drugs, and would avoid the lengthy safety trials that new drugs and treatment must go through as they move from lab to clinic. Any new treatment, such as the one proposed in this study, should still be tested in a human clinical trial, however, to show it can work.