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How Germs Can Get Into Your Fat and Make You Miserable

11/02/2013 01:09 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Of all the cells in the body, fat cells are perhaps the most misunderstood. For most of us, fat is thought to be that mass around the abdominal area that keeps us from wearing tight clothing or revealing bathing suits. But fat, better known the adipose organ, is a much needed part of life. It can be found all over the body and plays an important role in keeping us healthy and warm.

The healthy amount of fat the body possesses -- based on the body mass index -- is about 12-20 per cent for men and 20-30 per cent for women. At these levels, the body is metabolically happy. But if those levels rise, we become overweight and if that gain is extreme, obese. At that point, there is the potential for chronic health problems. A dramatic increase in fat percentage -- obesity -- has been blamed for its association with a number of diseases including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even depression.

Research has shown that the link between fat and these ailments is an association with the development of chronic, low level inflammation. Normally, inflammation happens when there is an injury or infection although many chronic diseases happen without either occurring. Research has since been trying to identify what types of activities lead the body to believe that it has been harmed by an accumulation of fat and found that our daily lifestyle choices are the key.

The most obvious decision that we make is diet. There is ample evidence to show that the food we eat directly relates to how our bodies develop and use fat. When we take in too much fat, the body starts to believe there is something wrong and initiates the inflammation process.

Another is exercise (or lack thereof). We need to continually keep our bodies in motion to keep the fat burning properly. If we turn into couch potatoes, our bodies believe that we are undergoing some type of injury and initiates inflammation to keep us at the ready for any problems.

Perhaps the most intriguing source of fat-based inflammation is the gut microbiome. The microbes in the gastrointestinal tract send signals to the body relaying just how diverse and balanced their population happens to be. Should this not be the case -- such as in dysbiosis -- the body believes there is a nutrition issue and reacts with inflammation.

Now researchers are learning that there an even more mystifying cause of inflammation due to fat: exposure to germs in the environment. This process is different from the others as it directly involves the fat found all over the body, better known as subcutaneous adipose. The problems occur when germs happen to find a home in places where they don't belong, such as the sinuses or the feet. The microbes release signals into the body that come into contact with the fat underneath the skin. The fat, in turn, realize something's not right and spark inflammation.

Research into this unique phenomenon began in 2002 based on findings that patients suffering from diabetes had an unusually high level of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in their nasal passages. The researchers at the time were not sure exactly why this may have come about but suggested that there had to be some aspect to the diabetic state that allowed these bacteria to thrive.

In 2009, a clue was found by researchers from Southern Illinois University who determined that exposure of adipocytes to S. aureus -- and in particular its toxins -- sparked inflammation. The results suggested that environmental exposure bacteria may in fact cause fat cells to signal wide-scale, low level inflammation. While this information revealed the link, it did not help to understand how that related to diabetes and other chronic health problems.

This week, a team of researchers from the University of Iowa published a study that revealed how S. aureus initiates inflammation as well as how different that response happens to be between normal and diabetic patients. The team took several cultures of human adipocytes from both diabetic and non-diabetic individuals and then added several different toxins from S. aureus. After 24 hours, they measured the level of inflammation triggered and compared the healthy from the diabetic response.

While they expected a difference, they were amazed at its extent. The diabetic adipocytes produced a significantly weaker response than the healthy cells in all areas of inflammation. In essence, the presence of the bacteria initiated low level inflammation. But what made the situation worse was that immune response was not enough to fight off bacteria, leading to colonization. Once there, the bacteria would continue to thrive and contribute to developing chronic, low level inflammation. It was a vicious non-ending cycle that could lead to drastic consequences.

The results of this study suggest that the role of fat is far more than what we believe and that it can control how we react to the germs around us. In regards to S. aureus, to which we are all exposed at one time or another, this could mean the development of chronic inflammatory problems may arise right under (or in) our nose with little to no recourse for remedy.

Fat-based inflammation continues to be a hot topic in the world of research and over time even more fascinating revelations will come forth. Although exposure to germs may not be preventable, there are ways to keep your body healthy enough such that an inflammatory colonization won't happen. Keep fat levels normal, ensure to have a balanced diet, exercise regularly, keep good germs in your gut and always make sure to keep your nose clean.

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