If you have a new infant in your family and a family history of type 1 diabetes, feeding your baby a special formula when weaning off breastfeeding may protect against the development of the antibodies associated with type 1 diabetes, thus potentially shielding your child from developing the disease itself. This is the finding of a new study, conducted by Finnish researchers, that was published in the November 11 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The researchers randomly assigned 230 babies at high risk of type 1 diabetes to receive either a regular infant formula or one that was extensively hydrolyzed — meaning that the proteins in the formula are already partially broken down and more readily available for digestion. They found that the extensively hydrolyzed formula cut the rate of developing diabetes-linked antibodies in the blood almost in half. Five immune system auto-antibodies have been linked to type 1 diabetes. Having one of these antibodies indicates an increased risk for the disease, while having two or more means between a 50 and a 100 percent risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
“We observed that early dietary intervention [with extensively hydrolyzed formula] decreased the frequency of diabetes-associated auto-antibodies, which are markers of an ongoing disease process, by about 50 percent by the age of 10 years,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Michael Knip, a professor of pediatrics at the Hospital for Children and Adolescents in Helsinki, Finland.
The study built upon previous research suggesting that breastfeeding may offer protection against type 1 because it delays the introduction of formula. Formula is made of complex proteins that may trigger the development of auto-antibodies as the proteins are broken down for digestion.
The current randomized, double-blind study compared regular baby formula to one that was extensively hydrolyzed. Babies were offered the formula during the ages of six to eight months old whenever breastfeeding wasn’t available. They were then followed until they were about 10 years old. After adjusting the data to try to account for the duration of exposure to one of the study formulas, the researchers found that the extensively hydrolyzed formula reduced the risk of having one diabetes auto-antibody by 49 percent and the risk of having two or more auto-antibodies by 53 percent. Researchers speculate that the extensively hydrolyzed formulas may reduce gut permeability or changes in gut microflora, among other things.
According to Knip, “It is possible to reduce considerably the initiation of the diabetes disease process in at-risk children in a simple and safe way: weaning to an extensively hydrolyzed formula.” He added that “based on the current results, we think that it is justified to recommend weaning to a highly hydrolyzed formula for babies in families with a member affected by type 1 diabetes.”