The number of people living with diabetes or pre-diabetes is increasing worldwide. Diabetes is chronic disease that occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough of the hormone insulin (Type 1 Diabetes), or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces (Type 2 Diabetes) in response to sugar intake. Insulin enables the body’s cells to accept glucose and then process it to provide energy.
In patients whose body does not administer insulin effectively, glucose is not assimilated by the cells but instead builds up in the bloodstream. Diabetes occurs when levels of blood sugar are abnormally high.
Although obesity is a risk factor for diabetes, research has shown that people with a healthy weight can also be diabetic. The same research also indicated that once diagnosed, normal-weight participants were more likely to die from diabetes than their heavier counterparts. Reasons for this apparent anomaly were unknown.
New research now suggests that it might be the presence of a certain specific kind of fat, which makes people of healthy weight prone to type 2 diabetes, and also why some people are more susceptible to it than others.
Researchers have identified a toxic class of fat metabolites called ceramides that could be responsible for causing type 2 diabetes. A buildup of ceramides was shown to prevent the fat tissue from working normally in mice.
When we overeat, some of the excess fat gets either stored or burned for energy. But for some people, excess fat just turns into ceramides, which impact the way the body handles nutrients. They impair the way the body responds to insulin, and also how it burns calories.
When too many ceramides accumulate in the fat tissue, it stops working properly and fat overspills into the blood vessels, heart, or goes on to damage the peripheral tissues.
Ceramides have previously been linked to diabetes by at least three different mechanisms: they cause the death of pancreatic beta cells, they increase insulin resistance, and they reduce insulin gene expression. The new study further emphasizes the role of ceramides in creating insulin resistance.
This study suggests that some people are predisposed to turning excess fat into ceramides instead of calories.
The research suggests even skinny people will get diabetes or fatty liver disease if something such as genetics triggers ceramide accumulation. This could be a probable reason why some Asian countries have a higher diabetes rate than the US, even though the obesity rate is relatively low.
According to the researchers, ceramide levels predict the existence of diabetes in humans better than obesity. For instance, in one research, patients who received gastric bypass surgery for obesity were found to have different levels of ceramides in their body. Those with lower levels did not have type 2 diabetes, whereas those diagnosed with the disease had higher levels of the toxic metabolites.
Researchers hope that by blocking ceramide production, they might be able to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes or other metabolic conditions, at least in some people.