Embracing the 'omes - PART IV - the Lipidome

Embracing the 'omes - PART IV - the Lipidome


When I named this short series of blogs, I wanted to emphasize how little we really understand about the mind-boggling complexity of life, health and nutrition. It is so much more diverse than most of us appreciate. So much more complex than fad diets would indicate. Even more challenging to map out than science expected. We need to learn to embrace this complexity, the ‘omes. A complete set of many types of molecules in a category. The category for this blog is the lipidome, our map of fats and things that don’t dissolve in water.


The recent history of oversimplified messaging of food that has been thrown at us, like “fat is bad, low fat is good”, has not been helpful. How can this be when 50% of our cell membranes are made from oily lipids, as well as making up to 60% of our brains! In fact, this messaging may even have contributed to health disorders by oversimplifying nutrition, when what we really need is to diversify it, including for lipids.


If we think about the blood plasma that we sometimes donate at blood banks, over 70% of molecules in it are lipids! No wonder our cholesterol levels go down when we donate plasma! But it isn't only cholesterols that make up the lipids in our blood; there are over 600 different types of lipids in our plasma! Scientists, used to regard lipids as mostly for energy storage and as a major building block in cell membranes. But now we are struggling to map the complexity of our lipidome.... where each of the hundreds of lipids (oils and fats) in the body have many important and different roles. Scientists are becoming aware that if we can complete this complex map, we could even have a fingerprint of our health status or identify diseases.


We actually make a big chunk of the lipids in our own lipidomes. Following the sequence of our ‘omes blog series here, the genome, our epigenome, and the proteome, create the foundations upon which we can make most of the types of lipids in our bodies. It is because of this that you have your own lipidome fingerprint compared to your best friend. We make up these lipids from the different nutrients that we eat and the recipes in our genes.


Unsaturated lipids such as Omega-3s, especially the marine abundant ones made by algae and seaweeds, are an essential part of our cell membranes. Can you imagine that! Molecules made by another organism, are an essential building block of our own actual cells! So we are in essence, made of molecules that algae make, just like the Omega-3 DHA in the smelly part of SeaFibre-3. We cannot make these molecules ourselves! “You are what you eat” is not just a phrase, it is true. These molecules may even have been a part of the algae, that then got eaten by a fish, then becomes a part of the fish, that then got eaten by us to make up our cell membranes. How freakishly connected life is on this planet! It sort of becomes the planet earth lipidome in this way.


Cell Membranes – Each and every one of our cells is made up of a mosaic raft of lipids that create the balloon like membrane that holds our cell contents together. Some of these lipids are made by you, while others are brought to new cells from our diet. The more saturated and straight lipids and cholesterols, give cells stability, like butter in the fridge. However, the cell membranes that need to send rapid signals and move the most, need more unsaturated and Omega-3 type lipids. This is because these lipids are bendy and jiggle, keeping our cell membranes soft and supple. You can’t make fish oils solid in the fridge. 

Brain - Our brains are fat!! We cannot function truly well unless the lipid composition of our brains is optimal, and this develops before we are even born. Indeed, it is well established that a mother donates a lot of her lipids to the foetus at different stages of development. Colleagues of mine at the University of Wollongong, have demonstrated that a pregnant mother will sacrifice her own stores of Omega-3 DHA during the first 45 days of pregnancy, to make sure that the spinal cord and neural pathways in the brain develop properly. Then breast milk contributes Omega-3 for proper development of the eye and our vision. Our whole neural system is rich in diverse lipids. If you missed our research on the importance of Omega-3 in reducing aggressive behaviour in prisons then you can catch up here.

Skin - Our skin surface is uniquely rich in the lipids group called ceramides, as well as cholesterol and fatty's acids, that are actually essential in keeping us alive. These lipids prevent us from leaking out of our bodies, and provide a barrier to the world from getting in. In fact our skin is about 1000x less permeable than other membranes in our body. In the case of skin, Omega-6 becomes more important than Omega-3, as it is a part of the ceramide structure. Indeed, experiments have shown that a deficiency of Omega-6 in the skin could only be overcome by including sunflower oil in the diet, whereas fish oil, rich in Omega-3 could not help, and coconut oil with nearly no Omega's at all could not help. Now you can see why diets that recommend eating only coconut oil are not very wise. Diversity of fats is key.

Further it is important to protect the skin from the outside, and not to be too abrasive in cleaning out the deeper oils, just they dirty ones on the surface to unblock your pores and remove pollutants. This is why we are working on a skin cleanser approach that can strip away impurities, but not invade too deeply that it disturbs the important ceramides.

Inflammation control - Lipids are a critical part of our inflammatory system. The ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 lipids in our body is set to be at a good balance when they are about 2 to 1. Omega-6 (think sunflower oil) turns on the inflammation we need to deal with danger, while Omega-3 (think fish oil), makes sure the anti-inflammation pathways are working properly. Because we cannot make these lipids genetically, we have to eat them. Unfortunately the modern food system has made us eat them out of balance at about 15 Omega-6s for every Omega-3! Wow!!! No wonder our modern society is struggling with inflammatory states. Although we need Omega-6, we really need to try and bump up every source of Omega-3 that we can, unless we are living by the sea and eating seafood regularly. This is why we added algal Omega-3 to SeaFibre-3.

Reproduction – Even our reproductive cells are high in lipids, and especially the long chain Omega-3. Cultures that eat a good seafood intake are known to have healthier swimming sperm, because after all, they need to swim like a fish! Well that is a bit of a long-bow, but the tail end and tip of sperm contain high amounts of DHA Omega-3, at about 10% of the fatty acids. Studies have shown that the motility of sperm can be improved by increasing dietary Omega-3 intake if you are deficient. 

Thank goodness then for lipids and our complex lipidome. For our brains, our vision, our defence against the world, creating us and for holding each of our cells together. Make sure you increase diversity of all foods, and lipids, and get enough of those marine ones that seem to have gone astray for many.... the ones that come from seaweed and algae.