fatty acids

By analyzing fatty acids are in the blood, a team of researchers think they can predict whether a patient may develop type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a long-term metabolic disorder that arises when our body is no longer responding properly to insulin – a hormone that tells our muscles and liver to stow away excess sugars. High blood sugar caused by type 2 diabetes can create many downstream health problems including kidney and heart disease. While genetics do play a role, many cases are a result of diet and a lack of exercise.

To help patients prevent type 2 diabetes, a team of British researchers have been investigating ways to predict whether a patient may be on the verge of developing the disease. Their belief is that through early detection, patients can prevent or at least delay the onset of diabetes through proper nutrition and exercise.

In their research published in PLOS Medicine, the scientists evaluated the levels of 27 different types of fatty acids commonly found in the blood. From 1991 to 1998, the researchers collected blood samples from 15,919 adults in eight different European countries – Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. By 2007, 12,132 of those patients ended up developing type 2 diabetes. By going back to the initial blood test results, the scientists looked to see what types of fatty acids these patients had in common.

Their analysis identified a specific fatty acid combination that was strongly predictive of type 2 diabetes. It included low concentrations of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid for proper health, and high levels of palmitic acid, a common type of saturated fat. Patients with this type of fatty acid profile were 63% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes as compared to patients with the opposite profile. Patients with a high linoleic acid and low palmitic acid pattern were not only less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, but displayed lower blood pressure, stronger blood vessels, and less weight gain over time. The researchers also found that high alcohol and soft drink consumption correlated with the “risky” fatty acid profile, whereas consuming coffee, fiber, and polyunsaturated fats helped promote the “healthy” fatty acid profile. This research demonstrates a strong relationship between fatty acids and type 2 diabetes risk.

In terms of understanding how genetics contributes to fatty acid patterns, the researchers are looking to extend their study to people of different genetic backgrounds outside of Europe. Would the same “healthy” and “risky” profiles emerge or would the effects be different? A lot more work is needed to clarify why certain fatty acids might be linked to type 2 diabetes. In the meantime, scientists not only suggest avoiding alcohol and soft drinks but also encourage us to exercise regularly.

Written by Calvin J. Chan, B.Sc.

Reference: Imamura, F., Shar, S.J., Koulman, A., Schulze, M.B., Kroger, J., Griffin, J.L. et al. (2017). A combination of plasma phospholipid fatty acids and its association with incidence of type 2 diabetes: the EPIC-InterAct case-cohort study. PLOS Medicine. 14(10): e1002409.

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