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Emu Oil, Dr. Sears, and Hairgrowth Mechanisms
Dr. Michael Holick, while at Boston University discovered the pronounced hair growth stimulating effects of topically applied Emu Oil in the 90’s, prompting him to apply for a patent on its application for this particular use. He identified and proposed several mechanisms by which Emu Oil could have this effect-most notably its anti-inflammatory properties, superior penetration ability, and ability to stimulate DNA repair in dermis. Subsequent research has shown that it stimulates collagen production on a par with the highly touted gold standard of anti-aging skin topical Retin A.
Could eicosanoids be the X factor behind emu oil’s amazing benefits?
Dr. Barry Sears delivered the riveting discourse “Potential Hormonal Effects of Emu Oil” at the American Emu Association Symposium.
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 and fat.
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 other hormones.
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 platelets.
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 the skin.
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 standpoint.
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 strategy.
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 their manufacturing."
Editor's Comment: This address by Dr. Sears to the American Emu Association provides us with some fascinating insights regarding it effects on eicosanoid modulation, and subsequently hair growth.
It is well established that the Subcutaneous fat layer diminishes with age, causing skin sagging and contributing to hair loss. Lipid replenishment methods are being continually developed by dermatological scientists and the biotech industry. Emu Oil is already an excellent natural oil for lipid replenishment. Dr. Holick and others have conclusively demonstrated that Emu Oil increases the subcutaneous fat cells that are are associated with large, healthy hair follicles providing enhanced circulation and increased nutrients to the follicles.
In addition to its effects on hair growth, Emu Oil can also be applied to dry ends to prevent breakage and repair split ends. And it also works well as a styling agent.
Again, there are several more mechanisms by which Emu Oil tightens skin and facilitates hair growth which we’ll go into our next update.