Friendly Gut Bugs
First Published: Investigator - December 2008
A Flinders Medical Centre endocrinologist says eating foods that encourage ‘friendly gut bugs’ may be a key to preventing Type 1 diabetes.
‘Feeding young children foods rich in inulin and probiotics may actually help protect them against Type 1 diabetes, which is primarily a condition that affects children,’ Professor Nikolai Petrovsky, Director of Endocrinology said.
Insulin-rich foods include onion, garlic, chicory and artichoke. Probiotics can be found in yoghurts and probiotic drinks.
Professor Petrovsky’s comments follow research conducted at the University of Chicago and published in Nature journal which supports the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ that lack of exposure to specific organisms may actually predispose to allergies, asthma, and immune system disorders. In particular, the researchers were able to show that higher levels of ‘good bacteria’ in the gut could lower the incidence of type 1 diabetes.
‘The findings reflect a study I did on identical twins in Denmark during my PhD. We found that in about 40 percent of identical twins, one twin developed Type 1 diabetes while the other did not – which indicates there must be an environmental in addition to a genetic basis for autoimmune diabetes.’
‘It now appears that having good bacteria in the gut, which is an environmental factor because these bacteria are influenced by what you eat, can protect you against Type 1 diabetes even if you are genetically susceptible to it.’
Professor Petrovsky said ‘encouraging the good guys and shutting out the bad guys’ was the best strategy to good intestinal health.
‘That means not overloading children on carbohydrates and sugar which encourages the growth of bad bacteria, and feeding them inulin-rich foods and probiotics to encourage the good guys.’ Professor Petrovsky said the US research could go some way to explaining why the rate of immune diseases such as asthma and diabetes were on the increase in the western world.
‘As a society we’re becoming obsessed with cleanliness, but the research shows that some bacteria should be encouraged – as they can actually help pave the way to good health.’
He said keeping a child on breast milk for the first 6-9 months of their life was best, as breast milk would encourage the growth of the right type of protective bacteria in their gut. ‘And then when they’re weaned, their diet should contain a proportion of fibre and inulin-rich foods suppled by regular ‘top-up’ doses of probiotics from eating naturally-fermented foods such as yoghurt and cheese. So to the adage that ‘we are what we eat’ we need to add the adage ‘our health relies on the bacteria within us’.