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Pregnant? Avoiding This Food Could Lower Your Baby's Risk For Diabetes

December 8, 2018

As we all know, there are some dietary considerations that are very important during pregnancy. For example, it's of the utmost importance that a woman consumes adequate amounts of protein, calcium, iron, folate, vitamin C, omega-3s, DHA, and fiber. It's also important for women to reduce caffeine consumption and eliminate alcohol, high-mercury fish, and certain raw foods like raw meat and eggs.

Why you, ask? These dietary changes are important for enhancing the likelihood of a healthy baby and may also have an impact on the health of the child throughout his or her lifetime. And in the future, we might have to add gluten to the list of foods to avoid during pregnancy.

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Gluten and its effects on the body: We know more every single day.

As an integrative neurologist and author of the New York Times best-selling book Grain Brain, it's my job to understand gluten and its effects on the body and brain, especially when it comes to new research and studies that are being published. Right now, I believe there is enough scientific data to add avoiding gluten to the list of dietary recommendations during pregnancy. I believe avoiding gluten during pregnancy is healthy for a lot of reasons, but high on the list is the work of Dr. Julie Antvorskov at the Bartholin Institute in Copenhagen, who is involved in multiple areas of research including cell biology, immunology, mucosal immunology, gastroenterology, and epidemiology. Most recently, her work revolves around the relationship between gluten exposure during pregnancy and risk for type I, autoimmune, diabetes.

In 2016, she published a study on diabetic mice that typically produce diabetic offspring. She noted that if, during pregnancy, these mice ate a gluten-containing diet, about 62 percent of their offspring would be diabetic. On the other hand, on a gluten-free diet, the incidence of type I diabetes was reduced remarkably, down to 8 percent. We've known for a while that the intake of gluten does play a role in how type-1 diabetes manifests, by affecting the regulation of the immune system, and this understanding supported the design of her research.

Why avoiding gluten during pregnancy could become the new norm.

But obviously, the important question is how do we translate this information to humans? Fortunately, Dr. Antvorskov has just published a study1, in humans, that helps us understand the importance of a gluten-free diet during pregnancy. The study involved over 63,000 pregnant women who's gluten intake was tracked during pregnancy. The children born to the women in the study were followed for an average of 15.6 years.

The findings were quite compelling. When comparing mothers with the highest gluten intake versus those with the lowest, risk for developing type-1 diabetes in their children was increased twofold. Interestingly, the risk of type I diabetes in offspring increased proportionally with the amount of gluten mothers consumed during their pregnancy.

We are hearing more and more about why gluten is threatening to our health. Clearly, over the past five years, the issues associated with gluten exposure have extended well beyond the gut and may involve the immune system, the brain, and as we now see, the risk for type-1 diabetes. This is just one of the many reasons why I wrote a completely revised and updated version of Grain Brain (available later this month).

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If you ate gluten during pregnancy—here's what to do.

While a specific mechanism relating gluten consumption to future risk for type 1 diabetes hasn’t been fully elucidated as yet, my sense is that it may well reflect changes in the infant’s gut microbiome. So what if you ate gluten during pregnancy? Mothers who remember eating their fair share of gluten during pregnancy might consider giving their child foods higher in prebiotic fiber and a good probiotic supplement to support a healthy microbiome.

As we learn more about the common manifestations of gluten sensitivity (that are quite apart from having actual celiac disease) reducing gluten during pregnancy may prove beneficial in more ways than just preventing diabetes in their children. It might even provide relief from common symptoms that have just en ascribed to “being pregnant” like gastrointestinal distress, mood changes, and even headaches. This could mean huge relief for many women an an increased quality of life while pregnant.

More research needs to be done before this becomes a mainstream recommendation for pregnant mothers—and it's important to know that only about 0.24 percent of Americans under the age of 20 have diagnosed diabetes, so this is a fairly limited population of people that this could be affecting. That said, the information we can take from this new study indicates that there is a relationship between how much gluten a mother consumes during pregnancy and risk for type-1 diabetes in her offspring. I feel confident and supported in adding to the list of important nutritional considerations during pregnancy the idea that women do their very best to limit, as much as possible, their consumption of gluten.

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