Information for patients, their families and helpers
The facts: Phytanic acid
The fats in the body are made up of several fatty acids, one of which is called phytanic acid. It comes from chlorophyll, the green pigment of plants, which contains a phytol side chain. Man, carnivores and most omnivores do not absorb chlorophyll with its attached phytol. However many herbivores which live on green plants, for example cows and sheep and some fish, have specially adapted digestive systems containing bacteria which can break down chlorophyll, thus releasing phytol, which is absorbed and metabolised into phytanic acid. The phytanic acid is then incorporated into the fat and milk of these herbivores.
Man is able to absorb phytanic acid from the milk and the fat of herbivores and other animals which can digest chlorophyll. Phytanic acid requires a special enzyme in the body for its breakdown and the release of energy and this is done easily by the majority of human beings. However those with, or liable to, adult Refsum's disease are unable to break down phytanic acid - so as they eat food containing phytanic acid, the amount of phytanic acid in the body gradually rises.
There is a second minor pathway for the removal of phytanic acid from the body but it is unable to remove the amount of phytanic acid that most people eat in a normal diet. However if the patient takes a diet with a very low level of phytanic acid, the phytanic acid level in the body will fall slowly over months and years due to this second pathway.
(There is more information about phytanic acid and phytol in the diet section of this website.)
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Page last updated 26 June 2006