Studies have long shown probiotics are good for your gut.
But the live microorganisms may have another health benefit for some infants.
A team of researchers led by University of South Florida associate professor Ulla Uusitalo recently found infants who consumed probiotic formula or dietary supplements within 27 days of birth were less likely to develop islet autoimmunity, a condition that leads to Type 1 diabetes.
The findings, published online Monday by the journal JAMA Pediatrics, were limited to infants with a high genetic risk of developing the disease.
The authors say they weren't able to prove that the use of probiotics caused the decreased risk, and they stressed that further research is needed. Still, their study is generating buzz for being among the first to suggest a newborn's diet could help prevent Type 1 diabetes.
"The association is very strong," Uusitalo said.
The University of South Florida is one of the nation's hubs for diabetes research. The school has a data coordinating center to identify environmental triggers of Type 1 diabetes and has received about $500 million in grant funding over the past 15 years to study the disease.
The research, some of which has been global in scope, fits into the university's larger goal of producing "well-educated, global citizens," said Dr. Ed Funai, the chief operating officer at USF Health.
Type 1 diabetes accounts for about 5 to 10 percent of all diabetes cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is usually diagnosed in children.
People who have Type 1 diabetes cannot make insulin, a hormone that helps the body convert blood sugar into energy. In most cases, it is preceded by a condition known as islet autoimmunity in which the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Uusitalo and her colleagues decided to look at the link between probiotics and islet autoimmunity because probiotics are thought to help boost the immune system, she said.
"We don't know exactly how the interactions between probiotics and the immune system work," she said. "But there is evidence that there is something going on."
What's more, probiotic use has been exploding among adults. The so-called good bacteria can be found in juices, granola bars, yogurt and even ice cream for sale at most grocery stores.
The study, funded by grant money from the National Institutes of Health, used data collected between 2004 to 2010 in the United States, Finland, Germany and Sweden. The final sample included 7,473 children.
The data showed Finnish and German children were much more likely to be exposed to probiotics than American children. It also showed early exposure was associated with a 60 percent decrease in the risk of autoimmunity among kids at risk of developing Type 1 diabetes.
Uusitalo cautioned against reading too much into the results.
"Only one study has shown this association, so we need more research," she said.
Her team plans to continue investigating.
"We look forward to seeing what we find," she said.
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.