Children of women who experience stressful adverse life events appear to be prone to develop type 1 diabetes, a Swedish study indicates.
Type 1 diabetes arises when the immune system erroneously attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. What triggers this autoimmune reaction isn’t clear.
The current study, involving nearly 6,000 children and their families, shows that mothers’ experience of divorce or violence raised the risk of diabetes-related autoimmunity in children at age 2.5 years by roughly threefold.
How might a mother’s stress cause this?
The thinking is that kids become stressed too, raising their level of the stress hormone cortisol. This could lead to insulin resistance, “which in turn may stress the insulin-producing beta cells and thereby trigger a diabetes-related autoimmune reaction in genetically predisposed children,” Dr. Anneli Sepa told Reuters Health.
“Somewhat surprisingly,” she added, “the associations between psychological stress and autoimmunity were not likely to be explained by any of the known risk factors for type 1 diabetes analyzed: type 1 diabetes in the family or extended family, increased parental age, childhood infections, body weight of the child, delivery by caesarean section, and the need for neonatal intensive care.”
Based on these results, published in the journal Diabetes Care, and results from a previous study, Sepa and her colleagues from Linkoping University conclude that psychological stress appears to be one trigger mechanism behind diabetes-related autoimmunity early in life.
“Therefore, it is important to reduce negative stress in children and this issue needs priority especially among clinicians working with children,” Sepa said. “It is central to look at the whole family situation and to try to reduce parenting stress, by for example discussing various coping strategies in connection with serious life events.”