white liquid blobs on black background, simulating fatty compoundsShare on Pinterest
Our lipid profile may hold vital clues about our health. Image credit: Yamada Taro/Getty Images.
  • Lipids are fatty compounds that are one of the building blocks needed to make living cells, as well as helping with many important functions.
  • While a lot of research in recent years has focused on the genome and its influence on the different molecules found in each cell, such as RNA and proteins, lipids are not influenced by the genome.
  • Researchers from Stanford University say lipids can also be used as indicators for health, disease, and aging.

Alongside other important molecules in the body like protein, carbohydrates, enzymes, and amino acids, lipids are crucial for normal functioning.

Lipids — such as cholesterol and triglycerides — are fatty compounds that play an essential role in a number of body functions. Additionally, they are part of the building blocks needed to make living cells.

Now, researchers from Stanford University say certain lipids could be used as indicators for health, disease, and aging.

Their study was recently published in the journal Nature Metabolism.

Lipids are fatty or oily compounds that do not dissolve in water. They make up the cell membrane of every cell in the body, and are crucial to many cell processes.

There are a few different categories of lipids including fatty acids, triglycerides, sterols, and phospholipids.

The most widely known lipids are cholesterol, which helps the body create hormones and the bile needed for digestion, and triglycerides, which the body uses for energy. About 95% of all lipids found in food are triglycerides.

Some of the main functions of lipids include:

Although lipids are needed to keep the body healthy, too much of certain types of lipids can cause problems.

For example, too much build-up of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, in the bloodstream can clog arteries, placing a person at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.

And a high intake of saturated fats from triglycerides can increase a person’s LDL cholesterol levels, as well as lead to weight-related conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

According to Dr. Michael Snyder, the Stanford W. Ascherman Professor in Genetics at Stanford University and lead author of this study, although lipids are important in many biological processes, they are still relatively poorly understood.

“Lipids are very understudied,” he told Medical News Today. “They are involved in pretty much everything, but because they’re so [heterogeneous], and there are so many of them, we probably don’t know what most lipids really do.”

For this study, Dr. Synder and his team took a deep dive into what is known as the lipidome, which encompasses all the different types of lipids that can be extracted from an individual’s plasma.

Because lipids are affected by what a person eats and the microbes found in the gut, they can go through changes and have an impact on the body’s overall health.

For example, a study published in September 2022 found that exercise may have a positive effect on lipids affected by aging, helping to possibly prevent cognitive decline.

Other research, published in April 2022, discussed how lipidomics — the study of the lipidome — could potentially be used to help design therapies for inflammatory diseases, such as like neurodegeneration and autoimmune diseases.

For this study, Dr. Snyder and his team conducted an analysis of more than 100 participants, many of whom were at high risk for developing diabetes. Study participants were tracked for up to 9 years and provided blood samples every 3 months when healthy and every few days during any illnesses.

Using mass spectrometry, the researchers profiled about 800 different types of lipids and their associations with aging, insulin resistance, viral infection, and other factors.

They also found that every person’s lipidome has a distinctive signature that remains stable over time, but certain types of lipids change predictably with a person’s health.

“We did not know but it seems plausible that our lipidome would be highly variable and heavily affected by diet,” Dr. Snyder told MNT. “In the end, it does seem highly stable and personal. It does shift in response to health conditions.”

For example, scientists found over 200 lipids that fluctuate over the course of a respiratory viral infection. They also identified lipids that could aid in diagnosing insulin resistance that could lead to type 2 diabetes.

And because study participants represented a wide range of ages from 20 to 79 years old, researchers also discovered a person’s lipidome changes with aging.

For instance, they noticed that most lipids, including cholesterol, increase with aging, but a few types of lipids, like omega-3 fatty acids, instead decrease with age.

Dr. Snyder said knowing how lipids change during aging is very important because it can help doctors track how people age.

“Many lipids are inflammatory markers and follow how those shifts can be valuable for health measurements,” he added. “We can look for outliers — people who have markers that might be different from most everyone else. These can be markers of disease.”

MNT also spoke with Dr. Yu-Ming Ni, a board-certified cardiologist and lipidologist at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, about this study. Dr. Ni was not involved in the research.

He said it is important to know more about lipids because they can have an impact on a person’s risk for other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease.

“There’s obviously a lot of different kinds of lipids out there that all can influence cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Ni continued. “We know that cholesterol is probably the number one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, particularly diseases related to cholesterol plaque build-up and includes heart attack, stroke, and leg artery disease.”

Dr. Ni also said that identifying the types of lipids that offer the greatest risk could be important for assessing cardiovascular disease risk and even future therapeutic development.

“With this, we’re able to potentially identify classes of lipids that are of greatest concern from a cardiovascular standpoint, and be able to then use that information to design research studies that might look at how perhaps modifying lipid levels might influence cardiovascular risk in the future. This will then be able to translate studies in patients to see how this might be beneficial for patients for preventing heart disease.”

– Dr. Yu-Ming Ni