Plasmalogens. I know it’s a strange-sounding word, but stay with me, because I am in awe of these little guys.

Plasmalogens are a type of phospholipid that play a critical role in neurological function. You have probably already heard me say that my favorite phospholipid is phosphatidyl choline, which is a building block of every cell membrane.  Plasmalogens are slightly different from most phospholipids, and these differences are powerful!   I  recently learned about plasmalogens  from Dr. Dayan Goodenowe’s research and his book, Breaking Alzheimer’s. I’m incredibly excited about these new research developments and want to share what I learned.

 

woman wondering what Plasmalogens are

What Are Plasmalogens?

Before we explore plasmalogens, let’s discuss the function of phospholipids (1). Imagine a cell like a bubble. The thin wall that holds the shape of the bubble is the cell membrane, built of phospholipids. If you zoom way in on the cell membrane, you’ll see that it is actually double-walled, called a lipid bilayer, where the fatty acid tails of the phospholipids cling together and the water-loving heads face both the inside of the cell and the cell’s surroundings. Now, what’s cool is that the lipid bilayer isn’t just a passive barrier; it’s dynamic. It lets some stuff in and out of the cell while keeping other stuff out. So, think of phospholipids as the architects of cell boundaries, controlling what goes in and out to keep the cell healthy and working properly.

Not only do phospholipids serve as a barrier, they also regulate cellular processes, construct lipoproteins, emulsify cholesterol and bile acids, absorb fat, and lubricate joints. Remember my favorite phospholipid,  phosphatidylcholine, or PC for short?  PC is found naturally in the cells of your body and your mucus membranes, like the GI tract, and also in eggs, soybeans, mustard, sunflower, and other foods. Phosphatidylcholine is critical for metabolism, cognition, cholesterol levels, liver function, and normal inflammation levels (2). Other phospholipids include phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidyl serine and phosphatidyl inositol.

The structure of PC and plasmalogens are similar as both have a head group and two tails. In PC both of the tails are fatty acids like DHA and EPA, whereas in plasmalogens, one tail is a fatty acid and the other is a fatty alcohol, which makes all the difference in its functioning (3, 4).

Plasmalogens were first discovered a hundred years ago, but the exact nature of their functions have only recently been uncovered. Scientists learned about the essential nature of plasmalogens by studying a rare disease called Zellweger syndrome, caused by the lack of peroxisomes, which create plasmalogens. Due to the lack of plasmalogens, children rarely lived longer than 6 months. (5).

Research in the 1990s revealed evidence that low plasmalogen levels may play a role in cognitive issues, neurodegeneration, dementia, and other health issues (5). Plasmalogens occur in high concentrations in some vital organs and are particularly abundant in your brain. They have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and play a crucial role in nervous system function, vitality, overall health, and longevity (6).

 

woman looking at sheet music in binder

The Main Functions of Plasmalogens

Okay, now that you know what plasmalogens are, let’s look at their main functions:

Plasmalogens Act as Antioxidants

Plasmalogens are the body’s first line of defense against oxidative stress, acting as antioxidants.  Since they can be built by the body, they can more easily be sacrificed to protect the nutrients, such as omega 3s and omega 6s, which we can’t make and must be obtained from the diet.  However, unlike most antioxidants, such as vitamin C or glutathione, which can regenerate, when plasmalogens are used as antioxidants, they are destroyed and new plasmalogens must be built from scratch. If there is an excessive amount of oxidative stress for a prolonged period, the supplies needed to make new plasmalogens can be depleted.  (13, 6).

Plasmalogens Support Nervous System Functioning

Myelin is the insulating layer around your nerves, including nerves in your brain and spinal cord, which supports the quick and efficient transmission of electrical impulses between nerve cells and protects the neurons from oxidative damage.  A nerve impulse can travel long distances thanks to the presence of the myelin. (7). Myelin contains the highest concentration of plasmalogens in the body – nearly 80% of the phospholipids in myelin are plasmalogens! Due to their structural role in myelin, plasmalogens support cognition and autonomic nervous system functions, movement, respiration, and the electrical system of the heart. (8, 9, 6).

Plasmalogens Allow the Release of Neurotransmitters

The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each with thousands of dendrites connecting to other neurons at points called synapses. To send signals, a neuron changes its electrical energy into chemicals called neurotransmitters, which are released into the synapse. These chemicals float to the next neuron, allowing the signal to continue. The neurotransmitters are released when small sacs holding them merge with the cell’s outer membrane. It is the vital plasmalogens in the cell membrane  that enable this miracle to happen!   Without neurotransmitter release, through the heroic action of plasmalogens, we literally can’t connect our neurons! (10, 6).  If we can’t connect our neurons, our cognitive functioning declines, leading to neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative conditions. Thus, plasmalogens help to restore and optimize cellular function and brain health.

Plasmalogens Support Cognition

Amyloids are abnormal fibrous, extracellular, protein-containing deposits located in various organs and tissues (11, 12). Amyloid formation has been linked to cognitive diseases and neurodegeneration. Plasmalogens might help reduce amyloid buildup, supporting cognitive function, improving mobility, decreasing cell damage from oxidation, and potentially protecting against neurodegenerative diseases. (6).

Plasmalogens Support Cardiovascular Health

Reverse cholesterol transport is an amazing process where excess cholesterol in arteries and veins are transported back to the liver to be eliminated from the body. This process helps keep cholesterol from building up and creating blockages. There is evidence that plasmalogens support reverse cholesterol transport through their important roles in cell membranes, thus supporting cardiovascular health. (6)

 

woman sick with cold sitting on couch

What Can Damage the Plasmalogens

As I explained earlier, plasmalogens are highly sensitive to oxidative stress (17, 18). And although this is their function in the body, if we experience an immense amount of oxidative stress from mold exposures, chronic infections, or environmental toxicants, this will have detrimental effects. Being in a plasmalogen-deficient state means that myelin structure and neurotransmitter release will suffer, along with other vital processes supported by plasmalogens. Fortunately, a 2002 study published in the American Journal of Physiology found that increasing plasmalogens may help to increase the resistance to oxidative stress and improve inflammation (19) Hold onto that thought, we’ll talk about how to increase plasmalogens in a little bit!

 

seniors with alzheimer's

Plasmalogens & Alzheimer’s Disease

As you can now appreciate, low plasmalogen levels may lead to neurodegeneration, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. In the world of dementia research, there is a gene that also gets a lot of press when we discuss dementia, and that gene is APOE.

APOE Gene and Alzheimer’s

The APOE gene creates a protein called apolipoprotein E which acts as a lipid transporter, responsible for delivering cholesterol and phospholipids throughout the body. So why is this gene so important when it comes to your brain health? The brain is mostly fat! Well, it’s mostly lipids and phospholipids to be more accurate. According to new discoveries, the APOE gene on chromosome 19 may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease risk and development (20, 21, 22).

Apolipoprotein E (apo-E) is produced in the liver, whereas in the brain, apo-E is produced by astrocytes, activated microglia, choroid plexus cells, and stressed neurons.  In the brain, apo-E is responsible for shuttling cholesterol and phospholipids, but its most important jobs are  synapse formation and tissue repair.  (23).

There are three variations (alleles) of the APOE gene: APOE2, APOE3, and APOE4. Each plays a role in your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease:

APOE2:

APOE2 may actually help to protect your body from Alzheimer’s disease. People with APOE2 can still develop Alzheimer’s, but if they do, it tends to happen later in life. Roughly 5-10 % of the population have this gene variant.

APOE3:

APOE3 is the most common type, about half of our population has it. It generally plays a neutral role in Alzheimer’s disease without increasing or reducing your risk factors. About 50-60% of the population have this gene variant.

APOE4:

The APOE4 gene can significantly increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, especially early-onset Alzheimer’s. Between 15-30% of the population carries the APOE4 gene, and about 2 to 5% have two copies. Just having one copy can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s, but having two copies may increase it significantly.

As functional medicine asserts, your genes are NOT your destiny, and the work of Dr. Goodenowe reveals that the link between the APOE gene and Alzheimer’s (and potentially even cardiovascular disease risk) depends in large part on your plasmalogen levels! (24). Even with the APOE4 gene, your RISK for dementia depends on the level of plasmalogens.  The higher the plasmalogens, the lower the risk of dementia. This is amazing news!

For the other gene variants, those with APOE2 are the most protected, but can still develop dementia if their plasmalogen levels are exceedingly low. APOE3, the most common variant, signifies moderate risk. Regardless of one’s genetics, having high levels of plasmalogens is protective.

And don’t just take my word for it.  A 2019 review published in Lipids in Health and Disease found that Alzheimer’s patients tend to have lower plasmalogen levels, which may be correlated with the severity of their disease (25). Through animal and human models, they found that supplemental plasmalogens may help to achieve positive therapeutic results.The authors suggest that though research on plasmalogens is early, it is important to consider plasmalogens as a therapeutic option for neural function and Alzheimer’s disease.

A 2022 analysis by Dr. Goodenowe and Dr. Senanayake published in Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology also found low plasmalogen levels in patients with impaired cognition (26). They studied 100 individuals placed in groups based on their cognitive status: mild, moderate, and end-stage. They found that high plasmalogen levels in the brain were linked to normal cognition and seemed protective against dementia. Low levels may increase the risk of dementia.

 

breast cancer pink ribbon

Plasmalogens and Health Issues

Besides brain and neurological health, plasmalogens may offer some other health benefits. A 2019 review found that plasmalogens may be a potential therapeutic option not only for neurodegenerative conditions but also for cardiometabolic diseases (27). Another review found that  using plasmalogens therapeutically could help to reduce inflammatory processes and chronic inflammatory disorders (28). Plasmalogen supplementation may have potential benefits for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and heart disease.

According to a 2021 article, plasmalogen deficiency may play a role in breast cancer (29). Researchers found that patients had low levels of plasmalogens before surgery, which did not improve after the procedure. The low levels didn’t seem to be caused by the tumor. This indicates that low plasmalogen levels were pre-existent and may pose a risk factor for breast cancer. Additional research suggests that low plasmalogen levels are associated with many other forms of cancer (30).

 

Plasmalogens Blood test tube rack

Testing and Supplementing with Plasmalogens

We can test for phospholipid and plasmalogen levels to assess the risk of developing dementia.  In fact, Dr Goodenowe’s Prodrome Scan, a simple blood test, is used to assess a variety of biomarkers for developing other issues, such as breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers. It is also able to provide insight into mitochondrial functioning and methylation.

If plasmalogen levels are low, we can improve them. A 2021 review found that plasmalogen replacement therapy was able to successfully restore plasmalogen levels and improve health outcomes (31). According to a 2022 study by Dr. Goodenowe, targeted plasmalogen supplementation may help to improve plasmalogen levels, reduce oxidative stress biomarkers, and improve cognition and mobility in people with cognitive impairment (32).

Although plasmalogens can be replenished over time through diet, mostly with various forms of seafood and animal protein, they are easily broken down by stomach acids, making diet an impractical way to achieve protective levels. Dramatically improving plasmalogen levels through high-quality supplements is the best way to go. This reduces the risk of dementia, cancers and cardiovascular disease, as well as improving cognition and neurological functioning!

Having studied with Dr Goodenowe and seen the power of these supplements, I have partnered with Prodrome to offer an exclusive discount for my patients and community.  Please visit prodrome.com and use my code KMCCANN25 to get a 25% discount on these life-changing supplements, or just click here.

 

healthy man standing in front of sun set

Next Steps

If you are interested in improving your neurological function or and interested in the Prodrome scan and plasmalogens, reach out to us.  Whether you have symptoms you want to improve or simply want to live a healthy life. You can learn more about enrolling as a patient at the Spring Center here. You can schedule a nutrition consultation with Sarah here or Visit our store for products.

And stay tuned for more information to help you uncover the root cause of your health issues, improve your nutrition, repair your body, and regain your health naturally.