Study: Early Childhood Stress May Contribute to Type 1 Diabetes


Research shows that stressful situations can lead to the development of Type 1 diabetes, or juvenile diabetes.

Researchers at Sweden’s Linkoping University studied whether there was a link between what was going on environmentally during childhood and Type 1 diabetes, according to Samantha Olson of Medical Daily.

The study, Diabetologia, which was recently published in the journal of European Association for the Study of Diabetes, is the first of its kind to investigate conflicts in the life of a child with diagnosed diabetes. The conflicts looked at were those with a strong impact like family conflicts, unemployment problems, changes within the family structure, or social services interventions. Issues on this level of importance had the power to increase children’s risk of Type 1 diabetes.

The study surveyed children between the ages of 2 and 14 from over 10,000 families who were analyzed for any stress markers. Then the researchers compared the findings with the 58 Type 1 diabetes diagnosed children who were participants. The team discovered that if the life event or psychological stress took place during the first 14 years of the child’s life, the risk of developing type 1 diabetes increased three times.

“The current study examined serious life events experienced at any time before diagnosis,” the study’s authors wrote, “further studies are thus needed to determine when in the autoimmune process psychological stress may contribute, and in association with which other factors, such as genetic factors, infections, or other periods of pronounced beta cell stress.”

The Mayo Clinic reports that the causes for developing Type 1 diabetes are unknown, but right before it appears in the child, the immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Perhaps, say researchers, the stress in a child’s life could contribute to cell stress by elevating levels of the stress hormone cortisol. As the pancreas produces more insulin in response to cortisol, this action leads to insulin resistance.

“The causes of type 1 diabetes are highly complex and involve an autoimmune attack brought on by a combination of inherited genes and environmental triggers, such as early diet or viral infection, which are still not fully understood,” Richard Elliott, a research communicator at Diabetes UK, told The Guardian.

In addition to the difficulty of a stressful event itself, a lack of social support related to the event played a role in the onset of T1D. Ted Ranosa, writing for TechTimes, reports that parents’ feelings of stress associated with child rearing were part of the study. Participating parents were given questionnaires which asked them about how they dealt with crucial life events and the stress, worries, and level of social support that parents have to experience when raising a child.

Experts say that both genetics and environment play a part in the onset of T1D. Also to be considered are diet during infancy, birth weight, early weight gain, viral infection, and chronic stress.

Another possible explanation for the onset of T1D  is that stress could ignite the autoimmune response that could then lead to an attack on beta cells in the pancreas that produces insulin. Some other studies, says Kathleen Blanchard for EmaxHealth, have suggested that certain events that occur in early life, like exposure to cows’ milk and gluten in food, could also contribute to T1D. The findings in Diabetologia could play an important part in the prevention of the disease if access to support when stress happens early in life can be ensured.

Medscape’s Miriam E. Tucker quotes Maria Nygren, a PhD student at Linköping University who along with colleagues, authored the study:

“For the first time, this unbiased prospective study shows that the experience of serious life events increases the risk for T1D. Our results gives us strong reason to believe that psychological stress can play a part somewhere in the immunological process leading to the onset of type 1 diabetes.”

Nygren cautions that heredity is still a stronger risk factor for developing T1D than is psychological stress. The absolute risk of developing type 1 diabetes because of psychological stress is still small, but the risk associated with stressful life events is the same as that of other T1D risk factors such as infant nutrition and enterovirus infection.

Nygren believes that future studies should investigate closely where in the process stress may be an important factor and if there are other environmental factors that interact with stress.