While the current advice for those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes is to improve diet, increase physical activity, and take medications, scientists have been aggressively searching for ways to manage, prevent, and even cure diabetes. One particularly exciting branch of research is the use of probiotics.
Type 1 vs Type 2 diabetes
Before we dive into the details, I would first like to take the time to review the basic differences between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
After you eat a meal, your blood glucose level, or blood sugar, rises which causes your pancreas to release a hormone called insulin. Insulin signals to the cells in your body to take up the glucose which brings your blood glucose to a normal level. Someone with type 1 diabetes is unable to make insulin because their immune system impairs the pancreas from making it. Those with type 1 diabetes must either give themselves daily insulin injections or wear an insulin pump.
While the exact causes are controversial, type 2 diabetes is characterized by insulin resistance. The cells of someone with type 2 diabetes do not respond to insulin signaling and, therefore, do not take up glucose. If left untreated, the pancreas may stop making insulin altogether which would then require insulin injections. Researchers have been investigating treatments for both types of diabetes and there have been some exciting insights into the role probiotics may play.
Probiotics and Type 1 diabetes
Since type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition and probiotics are currently being investigated as a possible therapy for autoimmune diseases, scientists are exploring ways to prevent the onset of type 1 diabetes with probiotics. One study found that among children who have a high genetic risk for type 1 diabetes, those who actually developed type 1 diabetes had a microbiota that was significantly different from the children who did not develop the disease. Another study suggests that probiotic supplementation in infants who are genetically susceptible to type 1 diabetes may be able to lower the risk of the disease. Therefore, it may be possible that probiotic supplementation early in life could prevent the onset of type 1 diabetes, but further research certainly needs to be performed.
Probiotics and Type 2 diabetes
Given its epidemic status, type 2 diabetes has received the bulk of the attention in probiotic research and the results have been promising thus far. Like those with type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetics also have an altered gut microbiota. A meta-analysis found that probiotics improve the control of blood glucose levels in those with high blood glucose. Since type 2 diabetes is preceded by high blood glucose levels (referred to as prediabetes), probiotics may be able to prevent type 2 diabetes. Interestingly, the analysis actually found that those with higher blood glucose levels had the greatest benefit from the probiotics. This means that probiotic supplements may be useful for those who are already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
How does it work?
The exact mechanisms are currently unclear, but researchers hypothesize that the reduction of oxidative stress and/or inflammation by probiotics may play a role in improving glycemic control. In the case of type 1 diabetes, probiotics may protect an infant’s gut from damage that would stimulate an autoimmune response. While it’s easy to get excited about these findings, don’t forget that the strain of probiotic used is incredibly important as well, so it is crucial for researchers to investigate the usefulness and mechanisms of particular strains.
Although we need to wait for more research on the effects of probiotics on diabetes, the preliminary findings give us a glimpse into just how important probiotics may be for human health.
Check out how Sound Probiotics is helping Team Novo Nordisk, the global all-diabetes sports team of cyclists, triathletes, and runners.
by Katelyn Collins
Katelyn Collins, is a future registered dietitian with a passion for probiotics, a knack for nutrition communications, and a love of athletic pursuits on both land and sea.