A fat formerly condemned for its association with heart attacks turns out to be powerfully protective against arterial disease, a new study has shown.
High levels of palmitoleic acid (POA) is frequently seen in the bloodstreams of patients with metabolic syndromes, like diabetes and obesity. Doctors had, unsurprisingly, labelled the lipid as a "bad fat".
Now University of Bilkent, Turkey, researcher Ebru Erbay and her colleagues have discovered that, in fact, POA has a pronounced protective effect on the vasculature and is the body's way of combating damage done by arterial disease.
"We decided to investigate the alternative interpretation of high levels of POA in metabolic syndromes," says Erbay. "The body is making it, so was the tissue 'fighting back' with POA?"
To find out, the team worked with mice that are genetically predisposed to develop clogged arteries. Half of the animals were fed a diet three times richer in POA than normal over a one month period while the other half were fed the same diet but without the extra POA.
"The difference was dramatic," says Erbay. "The treated animals showed more than a 30% drop in the development of arterial plaques."
The researchers show in their paper, in Science Translational Medicine this week, that the orally-administered POA is absorbed from the gut and penetrates the tissues where it becomes incorporated into cell membranes.
"It competes with 'bad' fats, stopping them from entering the membrane. This is what normally triggers inflammation and causes blood vessel injury," Erbay explains, before adding that, inspired by her own research findings, she doses herself with POA on a daily basis!
Her source is the berries of the sea buckthorn, which grows widely in Mesopotamia, although she acknowledges that the "significant sugar load that comes with them can be a problem!"
Regrettably there is very little POA in a typical western diet, although macadamia nuts, native to the eastern Australia states of New South Wales and Queensland, are second on the list as a relatively rich source of the molecule.
The next steps will be a clinical trial in patients to test whether supplementation with POA can alter the course of atherosclerosis in humans.