Could eicosanoids be the X factor behind emu oil’s amazing
Dr. Barry Sears delivered the riveting discourse “Potential
Hormonal Effects of Emu Oil” at the American Emu Association
Annual Symposium 2000 in Rochester, MN. Sears discussed what the
“X factor” in emu oil might be and what he feels the
future could hold for the emu industry.
An Agri-ceutical Industry?
I think the key thing that I found in talking to various members
of the American Emu Association is that you have a wrong view of
yourselves. I believe you to be farmers and ranchers. But when I
look at your industry, I see people at the forefront of biotechnology.
This is because emu oil is biotechnology – how to use biological
processing by the emu to make a product useful for human beings
in a cost effective manner.It appears to me what you’re doing
can be termed Agri-ceutical. Think of your industry and what you’re
doing as Agri-ceutical production, in essence using the emu like
a pharmaceutical factory to produce powerful drugs.
In Search of the “X” Factor
The problem you have right now is the question: “Why does
emu oil work as a dermatological agent?” In other words, what
is the X factor that makes emu oil work? What got me excited several
years ago about emu oil is that there’s probably something
there. Usually where there’s smoke, there’s surely fire.
You see these very dramatic effects on skin physiology using emu
oil, but the question remains: “Why?”If you talk to
anybody who has done research on emu oil, the common response is
that there appears to be absolutely nothing remarkable about it.
You look at the fatty acid composition, and come to the conclusion
“So what?” There’s nothing there. But observationally
something is there. Something is under the surface and your goal
is to try to unravel that. Because by unraveling, it takes emu oil
out of the anecdotal, and it takes you out of the static area of
ranching and into where I think emu farming should be viewed –
as a full-fledged, biotechnology drug industry. That is where you
want to view yourselves, you’re basically isolating and purifying
a very powerful drug.
When you talk about the benefits of using emu oil – they usually
fall into three categories: it appears to relieve inflammation (it’s
an anti-inflammatory agent); it appears to relieve pain; and it
appears to improve the healing of wounds. Usually the first thing
that comes to most people’s mind is snake oil. During the
work I’ve done over the past 20 years I’ve also been
accused of being a snake oil salesperson. After all, how can one
thing do so many things?
That’s why my interest in emu oil was so charged strongly
because many of the same benefits that you’re seeing observationally
over the years using emu oil are same benefits I have seen using
my own technology to control eicosanoids. And those hormones I believe
are really the X factor of emu oil – how emu oil affects these
hormones. And if you can prove the linkage, then you have found
that X factor that takes you out of the farming business and puts
you in the drug business.
Food is a Powerful Drug
The same problem that I went through is what you’re going
through today – trying to get a new idea accepted by the medical
community. I started from 20 years ago looking at food as a drug.
In fact, food is a very powerful drug because food contains what
is called macro-nutrients – things like carbohydrates, protein
The real insight I discovered 20 years ago was how these macro-nutrients
could affect these hormonal responses. Because hormones are 100
times more powerful than any drug, I realized that you could treat
food as if it were a drug. So in particular, using food to control
certain hormones, including insulin, glucagons and in particular
this group of hormones called eicosanoids. My feeling was if you
could control eicosanoids, you could control 21st century medicine.
How could food be a drug? This concept requires understanding of
the fact that food is probably the most powerful drug you’ll
encounter in your life.
Hormones are changing every time you consume food. Think of insulin
as the storage hormone and glucagons as a mobilization hormone (mobilize,
store energy) and this balance is constantly changing. And there’s
eicosanoids. And this is where I really think we’ll see the
key to emu oil. Eicosanoids are master hormones, hormones that control
Good Eicosanoids & Bad Eicosanoids
Eicosanoids are biological response modifiers. This means that eicosanoids
go out from cells to tell the cell what’s happening outside.
They’re like little molecular scouts. You have no eicosanoids
gland in the body, but you do have some 60 trillion cells that can
make eicosanoids. They are sent out on a second by second basis
to test the environment and come back and tell the cell what is
happening. Basically eicosanoids cause a response of that cell to
its immediate biological environment.
Another way of looking at eicosanoids is that you have master switches
that turn on and turn off cellular function on a second by second
basis. And you need such a super hormone to control other hormones.
The most complex organ in your body, outside your brain is the skin.
The skin is also the largest organ you have. And it too like all
other organs is controlled by eicosanoids.
The 1982 Nobel Price in medicine was awarded in understanding how
powerful eicosanoids are – how they control virtually every
aspect of our physiology.
There are over 100 compounds known such as prostagiandins, including:
thromboxanes, lipoxins, hydroxylated fatty acids, 15 epi-lipoxins,
and isoleukotrienes, that institute eicosanoids.
One of the key things you talk about with emu oil is that it prevents
scar formation. Scar formation is simply an aggregation of platelets.
Maybe there’s something about emu oil that’s changing
the levels of eicosanoids in the skin and decreasing in aggregational
If so, this can begin to explain the ability of emu oil to prevent
scars. Good eicosanoids inhibit platelet aggregation, are vasodilators,
are anti-inflammatory, control cellular proliferation, and enhance
immune function. Bad eicosanoids promote platelet aggregation, are
vasoconstrictors, are pro-inflammatory, increase cellular proliferation,
and suppress immune function.
Good eicosanoids are vasodilators. Bad eicosanoids are vasoconstrictors.
If you have high blood pressure, you’re producing more vasoconstrictors
and not enough vasodilators. In the skin, the key factor that promotes
the healing process is increase in dermal blood flow. That’s
one of the characteristics you see with emu oil – the blood
flow seems to increase and therefore the skin heals faster. I think
it’s because you’re making more good eicosanoids and
less bad ones and you’re changing the hormonal balance within
Good eicosanoids are anti-inflammatory and bad eicosanoids are
pro-inflammatory – they cause inflammation. What’s another
characteristic of emu oil? It seems to be an anti-inflammatory medication
and it decreases pain. I think in my perspective it is because it’s
changing levels of eicosanoids within the skin.
Good eicosanoids control cellular proliferation and bad eicosanoids
increase cellular proliferation. One of the characteristics of the
diseases of eczema or psoriasis is uncontrolled cellular proliferation.
If you apply emu oil to eczema or to psoriasis, it seems to be that
you see a significant improvement. It very well could be because
you’re changing the levels of eicosanoids.
Good eicosanoids enhance immune function and bad eicosanoids suppress
immune function. We see a wide variety of benefits in treating a
wide variety of very nasty neurological states are seemingly improved
simply by applying emu oil. So you can see why that when I was first
exposed to emu oil about 2 years ago, I got a sense of excitement.
It appeared to me at first glance that these different benefits
may simply be due to the fact that something in the emu oil, some
X factor, is causing a change of eicosanoids within the skin and
doing a very effective job. And that makes emu oil, if you can prove
the linkage, a very powerful drug.
And that’s why I say it’s really a drug business if
you can simply find that X factor, then use it as your rationale
to say, “I’m not just a farmer anymore. I’m a
big time biotechnologist!”
The Eicosanoid Connection
What’s a primary factor that causes skin to heal? You have
to be able to increase the transfer of oxygen to the wound. By increasing
the amount of “good” eicosanoids, you get a tremendous
increase in blood flow and the skin heals very effectively. Diabetic
skin ulcers may never heal because the blood flow is always compromised.
I’m sure some of you out there have seen or heard stories
of people who have applied emu oil to diabetic skin ulcers and they
get better. It’s another snake oil story, but makes perfect
sense if you understand the consequences of eicosanoid modulation.
If you’re in pain, you’re making too much of the “bad”
eicosanoid such as PGE2 or Leukotriene B4. If you make more “good”
eicosanoids and less “bad” ones, you decrease pain.
What’s another characteristic you consistently hear using
emu oil? “I put it on my skin and my pain went away.”
More than likely it’s because you’re decreasing production
of these two “bad” eicosanoids.
The Role of Dietary Fat
The reason I go through all this is that because while eicosanoids
are not well known by the medical establishment, they very well
could be that factor that you’ve been searching for to bring
your industry to a higher level of awareness.
Eicosanoids represent a very powerful story. Eicosanoids are controlled
by diet because the dietary fat you eat is composed of essential
fatty acids and will become good or bad eicosanoids depending on
how you control the levels of the two hormones insulin and glucagons
which are also controlled by your diet. And by doing so you make
more good eicosanoids and less bad ones.
In terms of dermatological properties, if you can get whatever
that X factor might be in emu oil, into the dermis, the actual living
part of the skin, you should be able to induce the skin to make
more good eicosanoids and less bad ones. And if you do, you should
predict less inflammation, less pain, and better skin regenerative
properties. And that’s exactly what you see from an observational
The Role of Essential Fatty Acids
Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) is the key fatty acid in changing the
levels of eicosanoids. If you talk about the fact that emu oil has
a lot of oleic acid…well, so does olive oil. And no one touts
olive oil as a “magical cure”. No one talks about olive
oil being applied topically and treating pain, inflammation, etc.
so one aspect you might look at is that emu oil may contain something
that might be changing the way GLA functions.
Now from a dietary standpoint there are certain oils that are very
rich in GLA, products like borage oil, evening primrose oil and
black currant oil. Why? It’s very high in GLA and we thought
if we could get more GLA into the body, life would be very good
because it’s the building block of all the “good”
eicosanoids. Unfortunately, we found out there are many twists and
turns of controlling GLA to make it go in the right direction as
opposed to the wrong direction.
In particular, we had to use the Zone diet as a drug to change
the fate of GLA and make it go in the right direction (making more
“good eicosanoids) and prevent it from going in the wrong
direction (making more “bad” eicosanoids).
Additional Dietary & Hormonal Factors
With the body you have to look at certain inhibitors and activators.
Insulin activates that process of making bad eicosanoids and the
hormone glucagon deactivates it. The skin is very unique because
it does not have the particular enzyme that converts GLA into bad
eicosanoid eicosapenlaeriolic acid (EPA). If you simply get GLA
or some other X factor that helps mobilize GLA into the skin, life
is very good again because all you can make are good eicosanoids.
The skin is the only organ of the body that allows you to play this
GLA & The Skin
All the potential benefits of GLA depend on getting it into the
skin, beyond the outer area of the epidermis, which is the hydroprotic
barrier that separates the body from the environment. GLA is transformed
into DGLA, which can be metabolized into PGE1, a very good anti-inflammatory
agent and also aids in increase in blood flow. At the same time,
DGLA in the skin can be made into the fatty acid 15-HETrE, that
inhibits the formation of one of those other bad eicosanoids called
Leukotriene B4. Here you have the keys to the kingdom if you can
only get GLA into the skin.
A typical triglyceride from edible oil, like borage oil, is like
a bowling ball. It sits on your skin – it’s not going
to go anywhere. So if you put all the lotions containing borage,
evening primrose oil or black currant oil on your skin – you
might get some trace amounts of benefits, but nothing to speak of.
So we converted the bowling ball into an arrow. A hydrophobic arrow
that can penetrate into the skin more effectively to change the
levels of eicosanoids. If we can deliver more hydrophobic GLA into
the skin, we should see all these wonderful benefits. And it turns
out you do see these drug-like effects, almost exactly the same
ones you see being reported using emu oil. Virtually the same results
which would indicate to one that something in emu oil is helping
the skin to make more good eicosanoids just as hydrophobic GLA does.
The Feed Factor
This kind of leads into the future of emu oil research directions.
For one, you should keep searching for that X factor. It very well
could be you might have it within the fatty acid composition. Emu
oil seems to be very low in gamma linolcic acid (GLA). You could
possibly increase GLA simply by feeding emus oil which are already
rich in GLA. Remember, you are what you eat!
Another factor which I think is even more likely, is that something
within the emu oil itself that goes beyond the fatty acid composition,
is helping to change the levels of eicosanoids. What that may be,
I’m not sure yet, but I hope to report on it in the near future.
The reason I’m here today is to find out more about emu oil.
I believe there’s something in the emu oil that could be very
powerful, to improve eicosanoid modulation. That’s one of
the things we’re doing from a research standpoint, is beginning
to look at combinations of purified emu oil along with the hydrophobic
GLA we’ve been developing to see if you see a synergism.
Synergism is essentially saying – one and one equals three.
There’s a lot of discussion about “ does emu oil help
agents penetrate the skin?”, if so, then a combination of
emu oil plus our hydrophobic GLA will give even better results.
And if there is something in emu oil that helps modulate the balance
of eicosanoids, then whatever that is, plus our hydrophobic GLA
allows us to get one plus one equals three response.
This future allows us to spend the development money because good
research requires dollars. I was very struck by each of you saying
“ let’s donate more money to do more emu oil research.”
Unfortunately the kind of research you need to grab the attention
of the market out there requires significant sums of money. But
if you know where you’re starting from and know where you
are going to, it’s easier to pay the price.
In summary, what’s the magic ingredient in emu oil that you
can put your finger on? I think it must center around eicosanoids.
Perhaps a combination of emu oil plus hydrophobic GLA, which is
known to affect eicosanoids, allows us the rationale to spend more
money on our own to try to move emu oil research to a higher level
that meets the scrutiny of the most rigid scientific standards.
If you could meet those standards, you would truly make that transition
from an Agri-business to an Agri-ceutical industry.
All of you started out as entrepreneurs. And many of you are on
the verge of a breakthrough. Many are saying, “We’re
almost there but it seems like the targets are moving all the time.”
If you can make that transition, make that breakthrough –
saying “Here’s emu oil and here’s what it does.”
Then all of a sudden, you’re at exactly where you want to
be. Basically having a “drug” coming from a very unique
animal that has been isolated for millions of years, therefore genetically
different than other animals around the world.
That’s why I think the future of the emu ranching business
will be driven primarily by emu oil as a cosmeceutical. But the
one last entity, that X factor is needed. And I think eicosanoid
modulation may be that X factor that basically brings you from the
small-time into the prime-time and allows you to compete most effectively
with large companies because you have a chemical factory –
the emu, that’s more efficient, more economical, and you have
better control over your factory (the emu), than they have over