Chronic inflammation is a common underlying factor in many major metabolic diseases afflicting Western societies. Sphingolipid metabolism is pivotal in the regulation of inflammatory signaling pathways. The regulation of sphingolipid metabolism is in turn influenced by inflammatory pathways. In this review, we provide an overview of sphingolipid metabolism in mammalian cells, including a description of sphingolipid structure, biosynthesis, turnover, and role in inflammatory signaling. Sphingolipid metabolites play distinct and complex roles in inflammatory signaling and will be discussed. We also review studies examining dietary sphingolipids and inflammation, derived from in vitro and rodent models, as well as human clinical trials. Dietary sphingolipids appear to influence inflammation-related chronic diseases through inhibiting intestinal lipid absorption, altering gut microbiota, activation of anti-inflammatory nuclear receptors, and neutralizing responses to inflammatory stimuli. The anti-inflammatory effects observed with consuming dietary sphingolipids are in contrast to the observation that most cellular sphingolipids play roles in augmenting inflammatory signaling. The relationship between dietary sphingolipids and low-grade chronic inflammation in metabolic disorders is complex and appears to depend on sphingolipid structure, digestion, and metabolic state of the organism. Further research is necessary to confirm the reported anti-inflammatory effects of dietary sphingolipids and delineate their impacts on endogenous sphingolipid metabolism.
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