Characteristics of people with more brown fat
It’s now thought that virtually everyone has small amounts of brown fat in their body, but certain groups of people tend to have more brown fat than others.
The more brown fat, or the more activated brown fat, the better, as there are direct correlations between the activation of brown fat and metabolic measures of good health. For example: Slender people have more brown fat than obese people do. Younger people have more brown fat than elderly people. People with normal blood sugar levels have more brown fat than those with high blood sugar.
Women also tend to have more brown fat than men, and people taking beta-blocker drugs to treat high-blood pressure have less active brown fat. The latter is likely because catecholamines, which are hormones released as part of your body’s natural “fight or flight” response, are known to activate brown fat, but beta-blockers block catecholamines, thereby suppressing the activation of beneficial brown fat.
3 natural methods to raise your levels of brown (and beige) fat
Given all the emerging benefits of brown fat, you’re probably wondering how you can get more of it.
Researchers are excited about the potential for a medical intervention that can help people develop more brown fat, but I would be cautious of any solution in a pill form. Instead, I’d suggest trying out some of the noninvasive methods that have been found to promote brown fat production and its activation.
1 Exposure to cold.
Scientists have repeatedly found that they can activate brown fat in adults by exposing them to cold temperatures. In one study, men burned more calories when cooled and lost white fat, the kind that causes obesity. According to the study’s authors:
“…metabolism in brown fat really is increased when adult humans are exposed to cold. This boosts the possibility that calorie combustion in brown fat may be of significance for our metabolism and, correspondingly, that the absence of brown fat may increase our proneness to obesity…” Swedish research published in 2009 also found that cold temperatures increased the activity in the subjects’ brown-fat regions. Cold-induced glucose uptake was increased by a factor of 15.
Based on animal models, researchers estimated that just 50 grams of brown fat (which is less than what most study volunteers have been found to have) could burn about 20 percent of your daily caloric intake—and more if “encouraged”. Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Work Week, gave the following suggestions for putting this into practice (they range from easy to hard core):
Place an ice pack on your upper back and upper chest for 30 minutes per day (you can do this while relaxing in front of the TV for example);
Drinking about 500 ml of ice water each morning
Cold showers; and
Immersing yourself in ice water up to your waist for 10 minutes, three times per week. (Simply fill your tub with cold water and ice cubes.)
2 Exercise. In one mouse study, the animals converted white fat into brown fat simply by exercising. The study, published in the journal Disease Models and Mechanism, found that during exercise the animals’ muscles released an enzyme called irisin, which triggered the conversion of white fat cells to brown.
It still wasn’t for certain whether this would hold true in humans…until preliminary studies presented at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association showed both mice and men experienced beneficial “browning” of fat following exercise. Among men, the benefits were found after 12 weeks of training on an exercise bike. One of the researchers, a postdoctoral fellow at Joslin Diabetes Center, said:
“Our results showed that exercise doesn’t just have beneficial effects on muscle, it also affects fat…. It’s clear that when fat gets trained, it becomes browner and more metabolically active. We think there are factors being released into the bloodstream from the healthier fat that are working on other tissues.”
3 Melatonin. Consuming melatonin stimulates the appearance of “beige” fat, which, the researchers of one study believe, may explain why melatonin helps control body weight, along with its metabolic benefits. Science Daily reported:
“The study…showed that chronic administration of melatonin sensitizes the thermogenic effect of exposure to cold, heightens the thermogenic effect of exercise and, therefore, constitutes excellent therapy against obesity. The fact is that one of the key differences between beige fat, which appears when administering melatonin, and ‘white fat’, is that beige fat cell mitochondria express levels of UCP1 protein, responsible for burning calories and generating heat.”
It’s also well proven that lack of sleep is linked to obesity, and if you’re not getting enough sleep, there’s a good chance your melatonin production is not up to par either. The disturbance to your melatonin levels caused by lack of sleep (and exposure to light during the night) may be one more reason disturbed sleep leads to weight gain, and this could have far-reaching impacts on your health. It is probably unwise to take melatonin supplements for this effect but far better to stimulate your own melatonin production as I’ve discussed in many previous articles.
Heat-shock proteins and the sauna connection
Heat-shock proteins (HSPs) are used by your cells to counteract potentially harmful stimulus. Whenever a cell is exposed to an unfriendly environment, the DNA separates in certain regions and begins to read the genetic code to produce these stress proteins. HSPs are actually beneficial, helping to both prevent and repair damaged proteins. HSPs are induced by heat, and this is one reason why sauna use is so beneficial.
However, intriguing research suggests HSPs may also be cold induced. In one animal study, cold exposure induced the expression of HSPs in brown fat, the implications of which are as yet unknown. It’s thought that cold-induced expression of HSPs may facilitate thermogenesis in brown fat, and, on a much broader scale, that exposing your body to reasonable amounts of both cold and heat stress may actually be beneficial.