High-fat diet may increase pain sensations without obesity or diabetes

Credit: Janice Lin / Unsplash

Western diets are rich in fats—in particularly saturated fats, which have proved to be responsible for an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and associated conditions.

Individuals who consume high amounts of saturated fats—like butter, cheese and red meat—have high amounts of free fatty acids circulating in their bloodstream that in turn induce systemic inflammation.

In a study from The University of Texas at Dallas, scientists found that short-term exposure to a high-fat diet may be linked to pain sensations even in the absence of a prior injury or a pre-existing condition like obesity or diabetes.

They compared the effects of eight weeks of different diets on two cohorts of mice.

One group received normal chow, while the other was fed a high-fat diet in a way that did not precipitate the development of obesity or high blood sugar, both of which are conditions that can result in diabetic neuropathy and other types of pain.

The researchers found that the high-fat diet-induced hyperalgesic priming—a neurological change that represents the transition from acute to chronic pain—and allodynia, which is pain resulting from stimuli that do not normally provoke pain.

Recently, scientists have shown that these high-fat diets also increase existing mechanical pain sensitivity in the absence of obesity and that they can aggravate preexisting conditions or hinder recovery from injury.

In the study, researchers looked for saturated fatty acids in the blood of the mice fed the high-fat diet.

They found that a type of fatty acid called palmitic acid—the most common saturated fatty acid in animals—binds to a particular receptor on nerve cells, a process that results in inflammation and mimics injury to the neurons.

The team says the next step will be to focus on the neurons themselves—how they are activated and how injuries to them can be reversed. It is part of a larger effort to understand better the transition from acute to chronic pain.

They hope the research encourages healthcare professionals to consider the role diet plays in influencing pain.

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The study was conducted by Dr. Michael Burton et al and published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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