The riddle of palmitoleic acid

When analyzing diet and the effects of nutrients on our health, there are often real puzzles. For example, why is it that the human body can make vitamin K2 (as evidenced by its synthesis during pregnancy and nursing), but for some reason does not – and relies on dietary sources? Why aren’t we making adequate amounts of EPA and DHA? One such mystery is palmitoleic acid, which falls into the omega 7 group.

It is a chemical compound almost not found in food. It can be found in sea buckthorn and macadamia nut oil, as well as several other equally exotic plants. Trace amounts are in animal products. Quite a bit in insects (perhaps herein lies the solution to the mystery?) And beyond that – there is none. Looking at this table we can see that the substance of interest (marked there as 16:1) is found in large amounts in breast milk. You can say that in a very large – there is more than 10 times more of it than of the active omega 3 acids, which are very popular.

The question is, what is the function of this acid in the child’s body? Is it essential for life and health? Or does it simply play a trivial antimicrobial role in breast milk? Should it be in our diet or not?

Some might be interested in this table, which lists the concentration of the relevant fatty acids depending on the diet – omnivores vs vegetarians vs vegans. Admittedly, such studies can’t be fully trusted, as I’ve seen similar tables with completely different values, but nothing else we have. It’s possible that the errors come from the fact that these studies are conducted in the US, where – as one survey found – vegans “eat meat at most once a week”.

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Sea buckthorn – one of the richest sources of palmitoleic acid

The table shows that the statistical omnivore has more than twice as much oleopalmitic acid in the body as the statistical vegan, while having essentially equal concentrations of palmitic acid, from which it is synthesized in the body, suggesting that our bodies don’t make it and diet is the main source. But cirrhosis sufferers, on the other hand, have a lot more of it in their blood due to reduced cleansing ability – which means the body can easily make it. It can, but it doesn’t.

So we have, on the one hand, its presence in our most natural food – breast milk, and on the other, its absence in virtually all adult foods. We have much lower concentrations in the blood of people who do not consume it at all, and a very high capacity for natural synthesis. So far everything suggests that it is unnecessary. But here are two new facts – first, the plants that contain it have been known as medicinal herbs for years, and second, clinical trials have shown very strong health-promoting effects, at least in people with certain medical conditions.

Let’s take a look at this clinical trial. Small (equivalent to 1 ml of sea buckthorn oil per day) amounts of palmitoleic acid were given to people suffering from cholesterol disorders and general inflammation – the two biggest risk factors for heart disease. An identical group received a placebo. After just one month, CRP levels dropped by almost half, triglycerides by 15%, “bad” LDL cholesterol by 8%, and “good” HDL cholesterol jumped by 5%. If we were to believe the numbers, this is a much stronger effect than that offered by “cholesterol pills” prescribed by doctors, which have hundreds of side effects. They reduce triglycerides just as much, but have little effect on CRP. It appears that “syndrome X” or “metabolic syndrome” is largely simply a deficiency of this one and only substance.

Unfortunately, there have been no further placebo-controlled clinical trials, so it’s hard to have a solid knowledge base to rely on here. One epidemiological study found that those with the highest intake of this substance had a 48% lower risk of diabetes than those with the lowest, but as you know – these types of studies are much less reliable because people who consume a lot of palmitoleic acid have a different diet at the same time than those who have little of it.

The downsides are known – although this is also largely theory. Analyzing the sebum composition of people with and without acne, one finds that the disease is associated with elevated levels of sapienic acid, which is made from palmitoleic acid. One may suspect that supplementation will make the situation worse, but it is theoretically possible that this increase is an effect and not a cause – palmitoleic acid has a very strong antibacterial effect and it is possible that it is produced in excess to protect the skin. By the way, it is worth noting that it is found in considerable amounts in the oral mucosa, where it is thought to protect the body from minor infections. Perhaps – but this is pure theorizing on my part – supplementation would help with gingivitis.

Palmitoleic acid remains a mystery. No doubt supplementation can save the health or lives of quite a few people by regulating metabolism – but does that mean it is necessary for everyone? Chemotherapy also saves the lives of a certain percentage of people, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. If metabolic syndrome were caused by its deficiency, it would be problem for vegans who have very low levels – meanwhile, their health proves the opposite. Perhaps it protects against the consequences of a “Western” diet, with no apparent benefit to those eating a healthy diet. It is also possible that it would help everyone.

Those who want to test it on themselves should buy macadamia nut oil or sea buckthorn fruit oil. In the clinical trial described above, an amount equivalent to 1 ml per day was sufficient, but I would suggest a higher dosage, 5 to 10 ml per day.

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