Having an increased amount of a waxy substance called ceramides in the body increases the risk of developing insulin resistance, the hallmark of type 2 diabetes, research has revealed.
Scientists at the University of Utah College of Health joined forces with an international team of scientists to research how obesity affects the development of type 2 diabetes.
The study, published in Cell Metabolism online, revealed that the accumulation of ceramides may increase people’s chances of having type 2 diabetes. This occurs when a build-up of ceramides prevents the normal function of adipose (fat) tissue.
Dr Scott Summer, the senior author of the study and chairman of the University of Utah Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology, said: “Ceramides impact the way the body handles nutrients. They impair the way the body responds to insulin, and also how it burns calories.”
When people eat, fatty acids are produced, which are then either stored in the body as triglycerides or burned for energy. In some people, excess fatty acids become ceramides.
When this happens the ceramides increase and the adipose tissue stops working appropriately and fat spills out into the vasculature or heart and damages other peripheral tissues.
This three-year project involved excess ceramides being added to human fat cells, or mice. This caused the cells to become unresponsive to insulin and develop difficulties in their ability to burn calories.
The mice were also more liable to develop type 2 diabetes as well as fatty liver disease and those with fewer ceramides in their adipose tissue were protected from insulin resistance.
Using genetic engineering, researchers deleted the gene that converts saturated fats into ceramides.
The findings indicate that having high levels of ceramides may increase a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes, while low levels could prevent it. Furthermore, the research suggests that further studies are needed to understand what factors lead some people to develop more ceramides than is healthy.

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