Could a natural sugar protect against diabetes?

When conditions such as obesity, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and hypertension cluster together, it is referred to as metabolic syndrome.

Individually, each of these conditions increases the risk of other problems, including coronary heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

However, when they arrive together, that risk is amplified.

People with metabolic syndrome also tend to have higher levels of triglyceride in their blood, which can eventually clog up arteries in a condition known as atherosclerosis.

In the United States, the prevalence of metabolic syndrome is rising; it affected 25.3 percent of U.S. adults in 1988–1994, and by 2007–2012, it had risen to 34.2 percent.

Finding a reliable way to tackle metabolic syndrome and its constituent parts is challenging. Now, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO, have provided new insight and an innovative route to a potential intervention.

Their research revolved around the actions of a natural sugar: trehalose. Their latest findings are published in the journal JCI Insight.

What is trehalose?

Trehalose is a natural sugar synthesized by some bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. It is regularly used industrially — particularly in foods and cosmetics.

In the latest study, the scientists fed trehalose to mice via their water and found that it produced a number of changes that would, theoretically, be beneficial for people with metabolic syndrome.

It seemed to achieve these benefits by blocking glucose from the liver, and thereby activating a gene called ALOXE3 that improves insulin sensitivity.

Activation of ALOXE3 also triggers calorie burning, while reducing fat accumulation and weight gain. Levels of fat and cholesterol in the blood also dropped in the mice fed this sugar.

The effects are similar to those seen during fasting. In fact, in mice, fasting also triggers ALOXE3 in the liver. Trehalose appears to mimic the beneficial effects of fasting without having to restrict diet.

“We learned that this gene, ALOXE3,” states study co-author Dr. Brian DeBosch, “improves insulin sensitivity in the same way that common diabetes drugs — called thiazolidinediones — improve insulin sensitivity.”

“And,” he adds, “we showed that ALOXE3 activation in the liver is triggered by both trehalose and by fasting, possibly for the same reason: depriving the liver of glucose.”

Our data suggest that fasting — or giving trehalose with a normal diet — triggers the liver to change the way it processes nutrients in a beneficial way.”

Dr. Brian DeBosch

Future benefits

If we take these results to their natural conclusion, it may one day be possible to enjoy the benefits of fasting without having to cut down on food. However, before we get ahead of ourselves, there are challenges.

For instance, trehalose has two molecules of glucose; during transit through the gastrointestinal tract, the molecule may be broken down into its constituent glucose molecules. If this occurs, it would be counterproductive.

To counteract this pitfall, the researchers investigated a related sugar called lactotrehalose. They found that this molecule was impervious to digestive enzymes but still triggered ALOXE3 activity.

In fact, lactotrehalose inhibits the enzyme that breaks trehalose down and can travel through the gut without being broken down. Because it reaches the intestines unscathed, it may even work as a prebiotic by encouraging gut bacteria to flourish.

Though the recent research was carried out in mice, it is difficult not to be intrigued that a type of sugar might eventually help mitigate some of the damage caused by metabolic syndrome.

At the same time, it is important to remember that much more work will be needed before we can say for sure that it will benefit humans in the same way.

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