BYU Diabetes Research Confirms Word of Wisdom

  By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 5 December 2013

Biology professor Dr. Benjamin Bikman and PhD student Melissa Smith are researching the effects of the lipid ceramide.  Photo by Mark A. Philbrick, BYU.

Article Highlights

  • Ceramide is a tiny lipid that accumulates in our muscles and alters the body’s synthesis of sugars and fats.
  • Ultimately the accumulation of ceramide slows the metabolism and drives fat mass development.
  • Bikman has found that the Word of Wisdom admonishes us to avoid some substances that dramatically increase ceramide.

“It's amazing to see how accurate the Word of Wisdom is. Some of the toxic substances Church members are encouraged to avoid (e.g., smoking) increase ceramide dramatically in the body.” —Benjamin Bikman, BYU professor

Numerous studies show the positive effects of exercise and diet when dealing with diabetes. The American Diabetes Association website states, “You can prevent or delay the onset of type II diabetes through a healthy lifestyle. Change your diet, increase your level of physical activity, and maintain a healthy weight.”

BYU professor Benjamin Bikman says a tiny lipid called ceramide is at the root of what causes disruption in the metabolism and leads to obesity. “Ceramide forces the mitochondria in our cells to pull apart in small pieces as it accumulates,” Brother Bikman said. “In so doing, the cell doesn’t operate as it is supposed to.”

For example, ceramide can not only reduce the ability of the cells to respond to insulin and take up sugar from the blood, but it also alters how the cells use sugars and fats as fuel, says Brother Bikman. Ultimately, this disruption leads to high insulin in the blood, which drives fat mass development and slows down metabolism.

“Ceramide accumulation is driven predominantly by inflammation,” said Brother Bikman. “As inflammation is increased in the body, so is ceramide synthesis and accrual. It’s important to note that inflammation in this context is the chronic, sub-clinical increase in the activity of inflammatory pathways. This is generally turned on with weight gain, and it is highly likely to be turned on or off depending on diet. Related to this, but a distinct point, is that insulin also appears to increase ceramide levels. Interestingly, insulin generally increases over time as someone gains weight.”

Once Brother Bikman and his students saw how inflammation increased levels of ceramide in the body, the research became focused on finding out how to reduce or inhibit ceramide in the body. The team fed two sets of test animals a high-fat, high-sugar diet, but reduced the ceramide production in the second group by supplementing them with myriocin, a known ceramide inhibitor. At the end of the 12-week test period, the first group of animals predictably gained weight and became diabetic while the second group did not, despite consuming the same high-fat, high-sugar diet.

“Unfortunately, myriocin is not used in humans due to toxicity issues,” said Brother Bikman. “Thus, efforts are spent finding something that mimics myriocin’s effects without the side effects.” To complete this part of the research, Brother Bikman and a colleague started a company, with BYU’s blessing, called Torch Biologic (BYU owns the patent).

“If we can prevent this shape-changing effect from happening in the cells by stifling the ceramide, we can prevent insulin resistance,” said Melissa Smith, a PhD student in Bikman’s lab. “From a cellular perspective, ceramide may be both cause and consequence of obesity,” Bikman said. “Ceramide accumulates in the muscles with unhealthy living, not only linking lifestyle to weight gain, but also connecting weight gain to disease.”

“I’m increasingly interested in the role of various macronutrients in our diets that increase ceramide levels,” said Brother Bikman. “In other words, how do various dietary interventions alter ceramide metabolism? I am also exploring how ceramides alter metabolic function in response to inhaled toxins, like cigarette smoke. It's amazing to see how accurate the Word of Wisdom is. Some of the toxic substances Church members are encouraged to avoid (e.g., smoking) increase ceramide dramatically in the body.”

“And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them” (D&C 89:21).