Is Type 1 Diabetes Triggered by the Bovine Insulin in Milk?

The tight correlation among countries between the incidence of type 1 diabetes in children and cow’s milk consumption didn’t account for Iceland. Indeed, studies correlating dairy intake in children and adolescents with the incidence of type 1 diabetes deliberately excluded the Icelandic data. Why? Is it because of genetics? Perhaps, yes and no. The people of Iceland are similar genetically to other Nordic countries, but their cows are not. As I discuss in my video Does Bovine Insulin in Milk Trigger Type 1 Diabetes?, there are two main types of the cow milk protein casein: A1 and A2. Icelandic cattle, who “have been isolated from interbreeding with other cattle breeds for over 1,100 years,” are unusual in that they produce mostly A2 milk, which may explain the lower incidence of type 1 diabetes in Iceland.

Unlike A2 casein, A1 casein breaks down into casomorphin, which has opioid properties that may alter immune function, perhaps increasing susceptibility to infections that may themselves trigger type 1 diabetes. That’s what’s in the milk from the classic black-and-white patterned Holstein cows, who make up about 95 percent of the U.S. dairy herd and much of the global herd—A1 casein. This issue has even caused dairy boards to begin taking out patents on methods for selecting “nondiabetogenic” milk to avoid triggering of Type 1 diabetes. Indeed, looking only at A1 casein consumption certainly restores that tight linear relationship between milk intake and type 1 diabetes and you can see at 1:47 in the video.

These so-called ecological, or country-by-country, studies, however, primarily serve to suggest possibilities that then need to be put to the test. For example, a study was designed where hundreds of siblings of type 1 diabetics were followed for about ten years and found that those who drank a lot of milk did have about five times the risk of coming down with the disease, too. By the mid-1990s, more than a dozen such studies were done.

Overall, researchers found that early cow’s milk exposure appears to increase the risk of type 1 diabetes by about 50 percent. Those data were enough for the American Academy of Pediatrics to decide that “cow’s milk protein may be an important factor” in the initiation of the process that destroys our insulin-producing cells. The organization went on to say that the avoidance of cow’s milk protein may reduce or delay the onset of type 1 diabetes. As such, the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes that breast milk is best and, for those at higher risk of the disease, strongly encourages the avoidance of products containing cow’s milk protein that is intact, as opposed to hydrolyzed formula where the milk proteins are broken up into tiny pieces.

Typically, hydrolyzed formula is given to children with dairy allergies and could potentially make it less risky, but we don’t know until we put it to the test. Based on the population studies and meta-analyses of antibody studies, which suggested that “cow’s milk may serve as a trigger of Type 1 diabetes,” a pilot study was initiated the following year. Researchers wanted to see if babies at high genetic risk for the disease would be less likely to develop antibodies that would then attack their own pancreas if they drank hydrolyzed casein—that is, casein that was chopped up. The hydrolyzed formula did seem to reduce the appearance of at least one autoimmune antibody, but not two or more, which is much more predictive of the development of the disease.

Nevertheless, that was enough for the investigators to embark on the ambitious Trial to Reduce Incidence of Diabetes in Genetically at Risk, also known as the TRIGR study. This multinational, randomized prospective trial involved randomizing thousands of newborns across 15 countries. In 2010, preliminary data suggested the hydrolyzed formula may have helped, but they didn’t quite reach statistical significance, approximately meaning there was greater than a 1 in 20 chance the findings could have just been a fluke. Indeed, when the final autoimmune antibody results were published, the special hydrolyzed formula didn’t seem to help at all.

The researchers only looked at a special group of children, though—ones who were at high genetic risk with diabetes running in the family—whereas the great majority of children who get type 1 diabetes do not have any afflicted close relative. Perhaps most importantly, however, as the researchers themselves emphasized, their study wasn’t designed to test whether cow’s milk is or is not a trigger for the disease. Instead, it aimed to analyze the potential effects of the hydrolyzed casein formula. Maybe it’s not the casein, though. Maybe it’s the bovine insulin.

Insulin autoantibodies—antibodies our body produces to attack our own insulin—often appear as the first sign in prediabetic children. “Because cow’s milk contains bovine insulin,” around the same time researchers were looking into casein, another team “followed the development of insulin-binding antibodies in children fed with cow’s milk formula.” They found significantly more antibodies to bovine insulin in the cow’s milk formula group compared to the exclusively breastfed group, who may have only been exposed to cow proteins through their mom’s breast milk (if their mothers consumed dairy). Furthermore, the bovine antibodies cross-reacted with human insulin, potentially being that caught-in-the-crossfire cause triggering at least some cases of type 1 diabetes.

Of course, we can’t know for sure until we put it to the test. Researchers ran another randomized, double-blind trial, but, this time, tried a cow’s milk formula from which the bovine insulin had been removed. And, indeed, without the bovine insulin exposure, the children built up significantly fewer autoimmune antibodies. What we don’t know yet is whether this will translate into fewer cases of diabetes.


You may also want to check out:

For more on the concerns with cow’s milk exposure in infancy and childhood, see:

I’ve developed a six-part series on the role of gluten-free, casein-free diets in the treatment of autism:

What’s The Best Baby Formula? Breast milk!

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Milk Consumption Is Linked to Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes, which typically strikes children and young adults, is an autoimmune disease in which our own immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells of our pancreas. Untreated it’s deadly, but even with well-managed insulin replacement, it may shorten life expectancy by a decade. “Families are devastated when a child receives a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes…Thus, one of modern medicine’s ‘holy grails’” is to understand what causes the body to attack itself, in the hopes that we can cure or prevent the disease. Genetic susceptibility plays an important role, but the “concordance for type 1 diabetes is only about 50% among identical twins.” So, even if someone with our exact same DNA gets the disease, there’s only about a 50 percent chance we will get it, too—meaning there must be external factors as well.

Some countries have low rates of incidence, and others have high rates. Japan, for example, has type 1 diabetes rates 18 times lower than the United States. This disparity isn’t due only to genetics, however, because, when children migrate, they tend to acquire the risk of their new home, suggesting it’s got something to do with the environment, diet, or lifestyle. In fact, the incidence rates vary more than 350-fold around the world. Some countries have rates hundreds of times higher than others, and it is on the rise. Researchers looked at 37 populations from around the world and found that the incidence has been increasing about 3 percent a year—our genes don’t change that fast. In fact, they couldn’t find a single population with decreasing incidence of type 1 diabetes.

Something is going on that started around the end of World War II. “The best evidence available suggests that childhood diabetes [also known as type 1 diabetes] showed a stable and relatively low incidence over the first half of the 20th century, followed by a clear increase that began…around…the middle of the century.” Why the increase, though? A number of factors have been postulated, including vitamin D deficiency, certain infections, or exposure to cow’s milk.

Decades ago, published cross-country comparisons showed a tight correlation between milk consumption and the incidence of  type 1 diabetes. The “analysis showed that 94% of the geographic variation in incidence might be explained by differences in milk consumption.” Investigators in Finland, the country with the highest rates of type 1 diabetes and cow’s milk consumption, led much of the research into this area.

It all started with studies like the one I feature in my video Does Casein in Milk Trigger Type 1 Diabetes?, showing that the less babies are breastfed, the higher the rates of type 1 diabetes, leading to the obvious conclusion that “[b]reast-milk protects the newborn infant.” On the other hand, if babies are not getting breast milk, they’re getting formula, which probably contains cow’s milk proteins. In the first few months of life, our gut is especially leaky to proteins. Is it possible that as our immune system attacks the foreign cow proteins, our pancreas gets caught in the crossfire? This was based on animal experiments, however. In susceptible mice, a diet containing the cow’s milk protein, casein, produced diabetes, but it did not cause diabetes in rats. So, are we more like mice or rats?

Researchers drew blood from children with type 1 diabetes to see if they had elevated levels of antibodies that attack bovine proteins compared to controls. Their finding? Every single child with type 1 diabetes had elevated anti-bovine protein antibodies circulating in their blood compared to much lower levels in the control subjects. That seems pretty convincing, but what about Iceland? They drink more milk in Iceland than in Finland, yet Icelanders have less than half the type 1 diabetes. I explore this paradox in my follow-up video Does Bovine Insulin in Milk Trigger Type 1 Diabetes?.


The vast majority of diabetes cases are type 2, so that’s been my concentration:

I’m pleased to have been able to address type 1 diabetes. For even more on this disease, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

How Phytoestrogens Can have Anti-Estrogenic Effects

When the Women’s Health Initiative study found that menopausal women taking hormone replacement therapy suffered “higher rates of breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and overall harm,” a call was made for safer alternatives. Yes, the Women’s Health Initiative found that estrogen does have positive effects, such as reducing menopausal symptoms, improving bone health, and reducing hip fracture risk, but negative effects were also found, such as increasing the blood clots in the heart, brain, and lungs, as well as breast cancer.

Ideally, to get the best of both worlds, we’d need what’s called a selective estrogen receptor modulator—something with pro-estrogenic effects in some tissues like bone but at the same time anti-estrogenic effects in other tissues like the breast. Drug companies are trying to make these, but phytoestrogens, which are natural compounds in plants, appear to function as natural selective estrogen receptor modulators. An example is genistein, which is found in soybeans, which happen to be structurally similar to estrogen. How could something that looks like estrogen act as an anti-estrogen?

The original theory for how soy phytoestrogens control breast cancer growth is that they compete with our own estrogens for binding to the estrogen receptor. As more and more soy compounds are dripped onto breast cancer cells in a petri dish, less and less actual estrogen is able to bind to them. So, the estrogen-blocking ability of phytoestrogens can help explain their anti-estrogenic effects. How do we then explain their pro-estrogenic effects on other tissues like bone? How can soy have it both ways?

The mystery was solved when it was discovered there are two different types of estrogen receptors in the body and the way in which a target cell responds depends on which type of estrogen receptor they have. The existence of this newly discovered estrogen receptor, named “estrogen receptor beta…to distinguish it from the ‘classical’ estrogen receptor alpha,” may be the “key to understanding the health-protective potential of soy” phytoestrogens. And, unlike our body’s own estrogen, soy phytoestrogens preferentially bind to the beta receptors.

For instance, within eight hours or so of eating about a cup of cooked whole soybeans, genistein levels in the blood reach about 20 to 50 nanomoles. That’s how much is circulating throughout our body, bathing our cells. About half is bound up to proteins in the blood, so the effective concentration is about half the 20 to 50 nanomoles. What does that mean for estrogen receptor activation?

In my video Who Shouldn’t Eat Soy?, I feature a graph explaining the mysterious health benefits of soy foods. Around the effective levels we would get from eating a cup of soybeans, there is very little alpha activation, but lots of beta activation. What do we find when we look at where each of these receptors are located in the human body? The way estrogen pills increase the risk of fatal blood clots is by causing the liver to dump out extra clotting factors. But guess what? The human liver contains only alpha estrogen receptors, not beta receptors. So, perhaps eating 30 cups or so of soybeans a day could be a problem, but, at the kinds of concentrations we would get with just normal soy consumption, it’s no wonder this is a problem with drug estrogens but not soy phytoestrogens.

The effects on the uterus also appear to be mediated solely by alpha receptors, which is presumably why no negative impact has been seen with soy. So, while estrogen-containing drugs may increase the risk of endometrial cancer up to ten-fold, phytoestrogen-containing foods are associated with significantly less endometrial cancer. In fact, protective effects are found for these types of gynecological cancers in general: Women who ate the most soy had 30 percent less endometrial cancer and appeared to cut their ovarian cancer risk nearly in half. 

Soy phytoestrogens don’t appear to have any effect on the lining of the uterus and can still dramatically improve some of the 11 most common menopausal symptoms (as compiled by the Kupperman Index).

In terms of bone health, human bone cells carry beta estrogen receptors, so we might expect soy phytoestrogens to be protective. And, indeed, they do seem to “significantly increase bone mineral density,” which is consistent with population data suggesting that “[h]igh consumption of soy products is associated with increased bone mass…” But can soy phytoestrogens prevent bone loss over time?

In a two-year study, soymilk was compared to a transdermal progesterone cream. The control group lost significant bone mineral density in their spine over the two years, but the progesterone group lost significantly less than that. The group drinking two glasses of soymilk a day, however, actually ended up even better than when they started.

In what is probably the most robust study to date, researchers compared the soy phytoestrogen genistein to a more traditional hormone replacement therapy (HRT) regimen. Over one year, in the spine and hip bones, the placebo group lost bone density, while it was gained in both the soy phytoestrogen and HRT estrogen groups. The “study clearly shows that genistein prevents bone loss…and enhances new bone formation…in turn producing a net gain of bone mass.”

The main reason we care about bone mass is that we want to prevent fractures. Is soy food consumption associated with lower fracture risk? Yes. In fact, a significantly lower risk of bone fracture is associated with just a single serving of soy a day, the equivalent of 5 to 7 grams of soy protein or 20 to 30 milligrams of phytoestrogens, which is about a cup of soymilk or, even better, a serving of a whole soy food like tempeh, edamame, or the beans themselves. We don’t have fracture data on soy supplements, though. “If we seek to derive the types of health benefits we presume Asian populations get from eating whole and traditional soy foods,” maybe we should look to eating those rather than taking unproven protein powders or pills.

Is there anyone who should avoid soy? Yes, if you have a soy allergy. That isn’t very common, though. A national survey found that only about 1 in 2,000 people report a soy allergy, which is 40 times less than the most common allergen, dairy milk, and about 10 times less than all the other common allergens, such as fish, eggs, shellfish, nuts, wheat, or peanuts.


What if you’re at high risk for breast cancer? See BRCA Breast Cancer Genes and Soy

What if you already have breast cancer? See:

What if you have fibroids? See Should Women with Fibroids Avoid Soy?.

What about hot flashes? See Soy Phytoestrogens for Menopause Hot Flashes.

What about genetically modified soy? See GMO Soy and Breast Cancer.

Not all phytoestrogens are beneficial, though. See What Are the Effects of the Hops Phytoestrogen in Beer? and The Most Potent Phytoestrogen Is in Beer.

How deleterious is hormone replacement therapy? See How Did Doctors Not Know About the Risks of Hormone Therapy?.

Synthetic estrogens used in animal agriculture are also a concern. For more on this, see Zeranol Use in Meat and Breast Cancer.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: