The relationship between type 1 diabetes and the microbiome

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Samantha Markovitz, NBC-HWC

When you or your loved one were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (t1d), the doctor probably didn't think to mention the connection between type 1 diabetes and the microbiome. With as much information that's known about how and why people develop t1d, there's still much to learn, especially when it comes to the gut connection.

Ultimately, the microbiome is essential for human health and development — and keeping it in balance can be especially beneficial for people living with t1d. Here's what to know.

The connection between T1D and the microbiome

It makes sense to start with the science: Humans are made up of over 100 trillion microbes, the majority of which live in the gut. According to the University of Washington Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health, the bacteria in the microbiome help digest food, regulate the immune system, protect against harmful bacteria, and produce essential vitamins that support processes like blood coagulation.

Learning more about the many microbes that make up our existence is helping researchers uncover previously unknown information about autoimmune conditions like t1d. The University of Washington noted that dysfunction in the microbiome can change gene activity and metabolic processes, causing an abnormal immune response — much like the attack that takes place against insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells in developing t1d.

Compelling research in this area has shown that autoimmune conditions may be passed down in families through the microbiome, not through familial DNA as previously thought. Additionally, the research has indicated that people with t1d have a less diverse gut microbiome than those without. Disturbance in the microbiome can be connected to a number of issues, including malabsorption of nutrients and issues with weight regulation, additional autoimmune conditions, and even insulin resistance.

3 ways to support a healthy microbiome and T1D

At a symposium on type 1 diabetes and the microbiome hosted by the American Diabetes Association and JDRF, it was presented that "the microbiome is modifiable through genetic and environmental circumstances, including method of birth, breast-feeding, antibiotics, diet, exposure to toxins, and hygiene."

Certainly, it's impossible to control all of those factors. However, with these facts in mind, you can take steps toward improving your gut health for boosted immunity, decreased inflammation, and a more healthful brain-gut connection! Here are three main guidelines to follow:

  1. Focus on food. There are several approaches to achieving improved gut health through food, including diversifying your diet by increasing fiber intake, choosing more plant-based meals and snacks, and experimenting with fermented food items. All of these options for improving gut health with food also support balanced blood sugar, so you can accomplish two goals with one effort.
  2. Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Lifestyle concerns like stress, poor sleep, and obesity are linked to digestive system disorders, so efforts to improve these concerns with increased movement, sleep hygiene, and mental health treatment pay off in gut health. It's well-known that paying close attention to managing stress, getting quality sleep, and maintaining a healthy weight also improve insulin sensitivity for smoother diabetes management.
  3. Pick a probiotic supplement. The good bacteria in probiotics maintain a healthy gut as they fight bad bacteria to keep the gut balanced, support digestion, create vitamins, and absorb medications. For example, your doctor may recommend taking a probiotic at the same time that you've been prescribed an antibiotic to keep your gut aligned, as antibiotics kill off all types of bacteria when it's only necessary to target the bad bacteria.
    • Choose a probiotic that's right for you. The Cleveland Clinic suggested starting the search for a probiotic by identifying options with live and active bacterial cultures. The probiotic should contain at least 1 billion colony forming units (CFUs) and the genus Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or Saccharomyces boulardii. Beyond that, specific probiotics are developed to target certain concerns, so be sure to consult with your physician to find out which probiotic, if any, can support your unique health needs.

While lots of research is being done, much is still unknown about the connection between type 1 diabetes and the microbiome. Continued study may even reveal a path to eradicating t1d one day — but in the meantime, what's known at this point shows the undoubtedly important connection between the human microbiome and overall health.

Now you can use what you've learned to improve your gut health, diabetes management, and well-being. As it turns out, what's good for the gut is also good for the glucose!

Looking for answers to other questions about living with diabetes and navigating daily life? Check out the library of articles on Health Insights for more information and actionable advice.

Samantha Markovitz, NBC-HWC

Bio: Samantha Markovitz, NBC-HWC is a Mayo Clinic-trained National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach and the author of “Type 1 Diabetes Caregiver Confidence: A Guide for Caregivers of Children Living with Type 1 Diabetes.” Drawing from her own experience in living with T1D, Samantha is dedicated to empowering individuals and families to live well and thrive while managing health challenges and achieving their goals.

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