Does cow’s milk increase risk of type 1 diabetes?

Health authorities recommend breastfeeding for at least first six months of a child’s life because it may prevent type 1 diabetes. After this initial period, solid food is usually introduced alongside breast milk. However, the reality is far from this ideal breastfeeding period. Moreover, the UK has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. In the UK only 34% of babies receive any breast milk at six months according to the UNICEF United Kingdom. On the contrary Norway has a high rate, 71%. There is not doubt that the breastfeeding is a healthier option for both – the new born and the mums. It helps the new born build stronger immunity and it can lower the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, obesity or osteoporosis for the mums. But, why cow’s milk found in baby formulas can increase the risk for kids to develop type 1 diabetes? Dairy may be an answer. Dairy causes the allergy.


Babe formula2
Variety of baby formulas


We are the only species in the animal kingdom that, after a nursing period, drinks milk from other animals. The humans consume cow’s milk and many people worldwide are allergic to it, especially to a particular type of protein called bovine serum albumin (BSA). When the allergy occurs, the body produces antibodies that attack any substance considered as a foreign and it destroy them. In Type 1 diabetes the child’s immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. It is therefore classed as an auto-immune disease. So, in both conditions antibodies are created to target “supposed” invaders. In other words, it is possible to say that there is an evidence that, what might be happening is that, the child becomes allergic to a particular food protein and the immune system reacts not only to this, but also to a similar protein in the pancreas.

In this case, if children are genetically more prone to develop the condition, the major trigger might be the introduction of allergy-provoking food too early. It may be that the gut and the immune system are not fully mature to process the bovine serum albumin protein.

Many studies have been published over the years confirming that a youth who received any breastfeeding for at least 12 months or full breastfeeding for at least six months has lower odds of developing type 1 diabetes (1). Children who have not been given cow’s milk until four months or older also show the same substantially reduced risk (2). If cow’s milk indeed raises the risk of type 1 diabetes, then we should not be surprised with statistics coming from Finland. The Finish are the biggest consumers of dairy products and at the same time they suffer the highest incidence of type 1 diabetes (3).


Cows milk
Different types of milk in a store


Dr Hans-Michael Dosch, Professor of Immunology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, identified BSA as a specific factor in cow’s milk that increases the risk of diabetes. He showed that it cross-reacted with the cells of the pancreas (4). If BSA protein is introduced earlier than around 4 months there is a high possibility to develop an allergic response to BSA. As a result, the immune cells would mistakenly destroy not only BSA molecules but also the pancreatic tissue. Dosh believes that, if there are anti-BSA antibodies, it may indicate future type 1 diabetes in 80 to 90 per cent of cases.

Alternative to dairy

Babies allergic to dairy perhaps was a big problem 10 or 15 years ago, because of the lack of alternatives. Nowadays, the supermarkets and especially the health stores offer many alternatives to cow’s milk such as quinoa, almond or coconut drinks among the others. Doctors usually recommend goat milk but apparently the babies immunity is not be able to distinguish it from cow’s milk.

As I mention earlier on, the best option will always be mother’s milk.






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