DALLAS — Scientists have long agreed that nerve damage and pain observed in people with diabetes or obesity is related to their metabolic state. Researchers from the University of Texas-Dallas are now challenging this notion. Could chowing down on fattening food alone be the driving factor behind pain in some people?
Results from an animal study led by the UT Dallas team suggests that may very well be the case. It’s all the more reason to avoid a high-fat diet, no matter how healthy you are in general.
“This study indicates you don’t need obesity to trigger pain; you don’t need diabetes; you don’t need a pathology or injury at all,” says co-author Dr. Michael Burton, assistant professor of neuroscience in the university’s School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, in a statement. “Eating a high-fat diet for a short period of time is enough — a diet similar to what almost all of us in the U.S. eat at some point.”
It’s no secret that the standard American diet is rich in fats and fried foods that are gateways to a laundry list of chronic diseases and obesity. In fact, eating fattening food may even exacerbate preexisting conditions or hinder injury recovery.
For their study, Burton and his team compared the effects of different diets on two sets of mice over eight weeks. One received normal food, while the other was fed a high-fat diet that would not induce diabetes or obesity since both can result from disease state-related pain such as diabetic neuropathy. They compared obese, diabetic mice with these mice as well.
The researchers looked for saturated fats in the blood of the mice consuming a high fat diet, and found that palmitic acid, the most common form of saturated fat, binds to a certain nerve cell receptor that leads to inflammation and mimics nerve damage.
This suggests that if there’s a way to stop this binding process, interventions may be possible.
“Now that we see that it’s the sensory neurons that are affected, how is it happening? We discovered that if you take away the receptor that the palmitic acid binds to, you don’t see that sensitizing effect on those neurons. That suggests there’s a way to block it pharmacologically,” says Burton.
Burton encourages health care professionals to consider the dangerous effects from eating fattening foods not only in patients with obesity or at higher risk for diabetes, but in anyone who might be experiencing pain. There may be more answers hiding in the “how” the patient got to a specific point than the end point or disease state itself.
The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.