How does Brown Fat Fight Obesity and Diabetes?
Researcher Dr. Paul Lee Explains how to “Fight Fat with Fat”
If you have been hearing about brown fat (brown adipose tissue) and find the science hard to understand, Dr. Paul Lee of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, has provided this excellent video presentation covering the basics.
Dr. Lee recently presented the ground breaking ICEMAN study on how keeping cool can stimulate brown fat. In his research, subjects were subjected to variations in room temperature in carefully controlled conditions over a period of months. The amount and activity of their brown fat was shown to directly influence the growth or loss of brown fat. In a cool environment, the brown adipose tissue increased and in a warm environment people lost brown adipose tissue. In fact, just one month of sleeping in mild cold temperatures increase brown fat by 30-40%. The plasticity of brown fat with variations in ambient temperature provided more evidence that human health problems of diabetes and obesity may have increased as modern humans have lived in controlled indoor environments.
“The improvement in insulin sensitivity accompanying brown fat gain may open new avenues in the treatment of impaired glucose metabolism in the future. On the other hand, the reduction in mild cold exposure from widespread central heating in contemporary society may impair brown fat function and may be a hidden contributor to obesity and metabolic disorders,” Lee said.
“Studies have been performed in the UK and US measuring bedroom, dining room and lounge room temperatures in people’s homes over the last few decades, and the temperature has climbed from about 19 to 22, a range sufficient to quieten down brown fat.”
“So in addition to unhealthy diet and physical inactivity, it is tempting to speculate that the subtle shift in temperature exposure could be a contributing factor to the rise in obesity.”
The challenge that Dr. Lee sees is that turning down thermostats may not be practical or comfortable. Additional studies will search for the mechanism that triggers brown fat and a drug that can be used to stimulate it.
View the video for his excellent overview of brown fat and why it is important in the battle on obesity and diabetes.
Lose fat with fat
Brown Fat Cooling
How mild cold exposure stimulates brown adipose tissue
How does brown fat cooling create a leaner body? Science has discovered that brown adipose tissue (brown fat or good fat) is present in adult humans, and that exposure to mild cold is a natural way to trigger brown fat activity. By “mild cold” they mean a temperature that is not so cold that it triggers the shivering response. Mild cold is “non-shivering” temperatures of around 60 degrees, and the brown adipose tissue (BAT) responds to mild cold by generating heat from glucose in order to maintain internal body temperatures. This process is known as “non-shivering thermogenesis.” While the basics are will known from research on lab rats, new studies are focusing in on BAT in humans and whether we have uncovered an overlooked organ of the body that plays a role in metabolism. A role that may include weight loss, treatment of obesity and related metabolic disease such as diabetes.
In this video the researchers explain, in simple terms, how brown fat stimulation with cold increased metabolism and reduced body fat.
The other potential method they showed, taking capsinoids, was only about 30% as effective as cold activation. So a practical method of cold activation has the highest potential for using brown fat activation to lose weight, fight obesity and diabetes.
Popular media and quick fix weight loss products and promises are already positioning to cash in on the idea of cold weight loss. A cooling vest for weight loss is on the market and author Tim Ferris has appeared on the Dr. OZ show promoting ice cold showers and ice packs on the neck to activate brown fat. What cannot be overlooked is the fact that brown fat is only stimulated by mild cold. Promises of weight loss with an ice cold cooling vest, ice baths, ice cold showers and ice packs on the neck are not only extremely uncomfortable, but research is showing them to be ineffective. Turning your thermostat down for weight loss to a comfortable cold temperature or a cooling vest that stays at a comfortable mild cold are much more practical solutions.
Is this cold shower necessary?
Killing your Brown Fat
New Brown Fat Research links Obesity Diet to Brown Adipose Tissue Damage
Diets High in Fat and Sugar Destroy Brown Fat
Brown fat and its related beneficial beige fat have only recently been shown to be important to adult humans. Now researchers have found that feeding an obesity diet chow to mice that is high in sugar and fat damages brown fat. Killing your brown fat with that doughnut is not a good idea. Your brown fat is jam-packed with vascular tissue, blood vessels, and mitochondria, the body’s energy burning factory. Known vascular health risks like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and lack of exercise are damaging to brown fat and the critical role it has in metabolism and health.
Studies have analyzed the “browning” of WAT as a strategy for combating obesity (54–56). However, it has been argued that these actions are quantitatively incapable of significantly affecting systemic metabolism due to the low thermogenic capacity of WAT browning relative to that exhibited by classical BAT depots (57). Comparatively little attention has been given to the mechanisms that contribute to BAT dysfunction and how they affect overall metabolic health. As shown here, the status of the vasculature in BAT is critical for its function both in terms of thermogenesis and systemic metabolic homeostasis. Thus, risk factors that are associated with diminished vascular health, such as hypertension, hyper-cholesterolemia, and physical inactivity, could contribute to the development of obesity through the degradation of BAT function. Shimizu, J Clin Invest. 2014; 124(5):2099–2112 doi:10.1172/JCI71643
The positive benefits of brown fat burning off excess sugar to produce body heat is reversed. Your brown and beige fat becomes white fat and insulin levels are increased. This part of the growing evidence about the importance of brown fat to your health. Brown fat is not just burning off excess calories in the process of non-shivering thermogenesis (maintaining you internal body temperature in mild cold conditions – not cold enough to trigger the shiver response). Brown fat also plays a fundamental role in whole body metabolism. We know that we lose brown fat as we age and as we become overweight and obese. We are just starting to find out how it functions so that we can stimulate brown adipose tissue activity for weight loss and prevention or treatment of metabolic diseases like diabetes.
Brown Fat Cold Exposure : ICEMAN Study Presented
Room temperatures proven to influence brown fat growth or loss
Brown Fat Activated by Cold
Today an exciting new study of the effect of room temperatures on brown fat cold exposure was presented in Chicago at a meeting of the International Society of Endocrinology.
“Our research points to a simple and practical brown fat activating and growing strategy in humans through temperature exposure modulation. We show that long-term minimal manipulation of overnight ambient temperature — well within the range found in climate-controlled buildings — was able to modulate brown fat activity in humans. Mild cold exposure stimulated brown fat activity while mild warm exposure suppressed it. Brown fat increase was accompanied by improvement in insulin sensitivity and energy burning rate after food,” said Paul Lee, MD, PhD, former research fellow at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Brown fat cold exposure with even small changes in room temperatures over the long term will have a beneficial health affect. Temperature changes directly effect the amount of brown fat and the activity of brown fat, which in turn has an important benefit on energy expenditure and metabolism in people. The study concluded that brown fat could be harnessed by simple ambient temperature adjustments making cooling an effective tool to combat obesity, diabetes and related disorders.
The flaw with this and other papers about brown fat cold exposure is that they ignore the practical limitations of people adjusting their thermostats down to sixty degrees. In northern climates during the cold months, this may be possible. But turning your air conditioning down in a home or business to the sixties is unaffordable and not very “green.” The solution may be in portable cooling. Brown fat activation with a cooling vest for weight loss and treatment of diabetes and other metabolic diseases will be a much more practical method, and has already been shown to work.
Lack of Sleep and Weight Gain
Brown Fat Activity, Sleep Disorders and Weight Gain
Brown adipose tissue at the intersection of sleep and temperature regulation
Lack of sleep is “a public health epidemic” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. Sleep disorders and weight gain go hand-in-hand and play a role in our obesity epidemic too. CDC data shows that 28% of U.S. adults are sleeping less than six hours a night and that is well below the recommended seven to nine hours.
The foundation of health and wellness is based on three factors of good nutrition, exercise and normal sleep. All three health factors are related: if you are tired it is hard to exercise, eat healthy and lose weight. But getting enough sleep is very difficult. Around 70 million people in the U.S. suffer from one of over 70 sleep disorders. Sleep is a critical part of human biology and metabolism.
With the recent discovery of the importance of brown fat (brown adipose tissue) in humans and the role it plays in our metabolism, it is not surprising that researchers are now looking at how increasing brown fat and beige fat activity could help with sleep disorders and weight gain. Researchers at Washington State University, Levente Kapas and Eva Szentirmai, recently published a paper titled: “Brown adipose tissue at the intersection of sleep and temperature regulation.” In their article they propose that impaired function of brown fat could be basic cause of poor sleep as well as metabolic disorders. Many years of study have shown the relationship between sleep, metabolism and thermoregulation (maintenance of body temperature). Their evidence shows that activated brown fat triggers sleep-promoting signals required for healthy sleep after periods of being awake. Sleep deprivation is commonly tied to obesity in people. Since the researchers found that brown fat activation leads to good sleep, and it is now known that brown fat plays a role in burning calories, they believe a lack of brown fat is a common thread linking obesity and poor sleep in humans.
The importance of brown adipose tissue continues to be uncovered and its importance to sleep disorders and weight gain and obesity is another exciting area to follow. Activation of brown fat in a safe and effective way will lead to improvements in health.
Obesity Risk Increases with Less Sleep
NIH Brown Fat Conference
February 25 – 26, 2014 Hosted by National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
“A workshop focused on elucidating the roles of recently described brown and beige fat or brite fat in people. Speakers will describe state-of-the-art technology for monitoring human brown adipose tissue (hBAT) mass and function, and present recent basic and clinical data.” – Agenda
An important new workshop in February 2014 brought together many leading human brown adipose (hBAT) researchers to exchange information and discuss the role of brown fat in humans. Organized by Aaron Cypess, Joslin Diabetes Center – Harvard University, Carol Haft, NIDDK, Houchun Harry Hu, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and Maren Laughlin, NIDDK, the goal of the meeting was to review important state-of-the-art technology to measure and monitor brown fat, and present the latest information on clinical studies of brown fat.
Only six years have passed since scientists published the discovery that active brown adipose tissue existed in adult humans. Data from PET scans showing a “new” organ convinced the scientific community that brown fat was something exciting to be studies. But the role brown fat in humans plays is uncertain. Many efforts are underway to look at how much brown fat and beige fat people have and what will increase brown fat. Even when science understands how much brown fat humans have and how we can create more brown fat, it is useless if we do not know how to activate it to trigger its ability to fight obesity.
The conference agenda on the role brown fat role in humans covered important developments in:
- The function and importance of brown adipose tissue
- Measurement of human brown fat activity with MRI (going beyond the limits of PET scans)
- Brown fat and beige fat in human metabolism
- Targeting brown fat for therapies for human health
- Future directions of human brown adipose tissue research
The most interesting information from the workshop is found in the “posters” or brief summaries of current studies on the role brown fat in humans. There were 47 posters presented and over a dozen were called out as “hot topics” for additional discussion.
Here are some highlights from the posters presented that show the exciting and broad areas where brown fat activation shows promise in improving health:
- Szentirmai, Eva, Brown Adipose Tissue and Sleep Regulation.
- Akimov, E.B., Brown Adipose Tissue and Aerobic Performance of Athletes.
- Blondin, Denis, Acute Cold Exposure Elicits Increases in BAT Oxidative Metabolism in Individuals with Type 2 Diabetes.
- Broeders, Evie PM, Brown Adipose Tissue Activity and Thyroid Hormone in Adult Humans.
- Chondronikola, Maria, Brown Adipose Tissue Improves Glucose Metabolism and Whole Body Insulin Sensitivity in Humans.
- Cypess, Aaron M., Mild Intermittent Cooling of Mice is Sufficient to Increase the Thermogenic Capacity of the Adipose Tissue Deposits.
Check back regularly as we provide a summary of each of the above posters in the role of brown fat in humans.
Research shows Beige Fat works like Brown Fat
Mild cold and exercise stimulate creation of “beige fat” in white adipose tissue
Mild cold exposure forms beige fat and brown fat
Our whole focus on fat, weight loss and obesity has been rooted in looking at white fat which is the “bad fat” that we find so hard to eliminate. White fat or white adipose tissue is really only one type of adipose tissue. Recent research has focused on brown adipose tissue (“brown fat”) which turns energy into heat in a process known as “thermogenesis” to maintain the body’s warmth in response to mild cold exposure. Exercise has also been linked to the presence and activation of brown fat, and it is thought to have an important role in weight loss and suppressing metabolic disease. Now researchers have also been working on learning more about a third adipose tissue they call beige fat because beige fat cells can be generated and mixed with white fat cells and are not separate tissue deposits like brown fat.
Beige fat and brown fat cells have now been linked to reductions in body mass, obesity, and metabolic disease in studies on mice. These studies have major positive implications for areas of study to fight obesity and treat metabolic diseases such as diabetes in humans. Beige fat and brown fat generation and activation are both triggered by exercise and cold exposure. Breakthroughs in weight loss and health may be achieved by simple natural mechanisms following protocols of exercise and use of simple natural tools such as a cooling vest for brown fat activation.
How important is this area of research? In a scientific review of the field, scientists concluded:
There is persuasive evidence from animal models that enhancement of the function of brown adipocytes, beige adipocytes or both in humans could be very effective for treating type 2 diabetes and obesity. Harms, M., Seale, P., Brown and Beige Fat: development, function and therapeutic potential. Nat. Med. 19 (2013).
Another key link between brown fat and beige fat is found in the way that brown fat works to generate heat from energy (instead of storing energy – the role of white fat). Brown adipose tissue (BAT) are jam-packed with mitochondria, the cell’s energy factory, that contain a protein known as “UCP1”. The UCP1 protein is key to generation of heat by burning glucose. That heat is then distributed throughout the body by the circulatory system.
Beige fat is essentially mixed in with white fat cells, but beige fat cells have a critical similarity to brown fat cells. The beige fat cells are also packed with mitochondria containing UCP1, and the creation of beige fat cells and their activation is triggered by cold exposure.
Understanding that the body has three types of adipose tissues, and their role, are important to following the exciting new areas of scientific exploration of the role these cells play in human health.