Diabetes and Toxic Fat: A Dangerous Connection
For years, scientists have studied the relationship between obesity and type 2 diabetes. However, type 2 diabetics account for 90-95 percent of all diabetes patients in the United States, and while a large portion of this population is overweight or obese, there are those who still develop the disease while at a healthy weight.
Now, scientists may have discovered why: a type of fat called ceramides.
What are Ceramides?
According to research from the University of Utah Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology, it is ceramides – a toxic class of fat metabolites – that are responsible for the development of type 2 diabetes.
Lead study author Scott Summers, Ph.D, described ceramides simply: “Ceramides impact the way the body handles nutrients. They impair the way the body responds to insulin, and also how it burns calories.” More specifically, scientists believe ceramides responsible for three functions: the death of pancreatic beta cells, increased insulin resistance, and reduced insulin gene expression.
When we eat, we produce fatty acids in the body that either burn off into energy or are stored as triglycerides. But for some, that fatty acids is converted into ceramides, which begins a chain reaction that can lead to the development of type 2 diabetes. An excess of ceremides can interfere with the adipose tissue, causing fat to spill out into other parts of the body. This, the study suggests, could account for why people of all sizes develop conditions like type 2 diabetes or liver disease.
Dr. Summers and his team spent three years studying these toxic metabolites on mice. According to their findings (published in Cell Metabolism), mice with low ceramide levels had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, when researchers added extra ceramides to the a mouse's fat cells, his risk increased significantly.
This study is not alone in its condemnation of ceramides. Another study in Singapore also suggested that ceramides could play a role in type 2 diabetes. In a review of people receiving gastric bypass surgery, the research indicated that the people with type 2 diabetes had far higher ceramide levels than those people who did not – even though all patients were obese. While obesity continues to be a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, the research on ceramides presents another, possibly genetic risk factor.
Study author Bhagirath Chaurasia, Assistant Professor at the University of Utah, considers these findings a breakthrough for type 2 diabetes research. The research “[S]uggests some skinny people will get diabetes or fatty liver disease if something such as genetics triggers ceramide accumulation,” Chaurasia said. “By blocking ceramide production, we might be able to prevent the development of Type 2 diabetes or other metabolic conditions, at least in some people.”