Brown Fat Research Guide to Turning On Metabolic Health with Mild Cold Exposure
Are you comfortable as you read this? Most likely sitting indoors with a thermostat set to keep you not too hot - not too cold - but just right at 72F/22C? Over the last decade, brown fat research studies provide evidence that our health is improved by exposure to cold temperatures. New discoveries about an ignored type of fat tissue mammals use to stay warm plays a role in humans. They discovered that "fat" is an important and misunderstood organ. The scientific word for "fat" is adipose tissue, and we have two primary types - white adipose tissue ("white fat") that stores energy, and brown adipose tissue ("brown fat") that is packed with mitochondria and uses glucose to generate heat. White fat is what so many of us constantly battle. It stores energy in deposits under our skin and inside our body. White fat is undesirable and we do everything we can to lose weight - before it also leads to obesity and metabolic disease like diabetes. Brown fat was once believed to be non-existent and unimportant for adults. Today it is a fertile field of study in the areas of weight loss, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer. Everything in our understanding of fat has changed. White fat and brown fat are now known to be part of an interconnected metabolic system. A system that modern life has broken - where our poor diet and exercise leads to large, unhealthy deposits of white fat, and our temperature controlled environment allows the good brown fat to be dormant. Long term brown fat activation research using mild cold exposure is already been proven in mouse studies to cause weight loss, treating obesity and diseases like diabetes. Long term, larger scale human studies are now needed. Obesity and diabetes are huge, growing and costly health issues. Researchers are excited to explore the benefit of active brown fat to improve human health.
Why study brown fat?
We now know that brown fat plays a very important role. It maintains your body temperature by producing energy and burning calories. This also helps maintain healthy blood sugar and insulin levels in your body.
Brown Fat Burns Calories - “Good Fat” - Brown Adipose Tissue
Studies in animals show that activated brown fat will use a lot of glucose and it plays an important role in human metabolism. With mild cold exposure some white fat cells are also changed and become richer in mitochondria. These cells become browner in color and are known as beige fat.
Cold Exposure Reduces “Bad Fat” - White Adipose Tissue
White fat is our energy storage depot. Exposure to cold temperatures causes brown and beige tissues to burn glucose and reduce the stored energy in white fat deposits.
Brown Fat Non-shivering Thermogenesis Boosts Metabolism Naturally
While many methods of activating brown fat in humans are being studied and tested, the use of mild cold exposure has the benefit of using a natural process. It is as simple as lowering the thermostat or using cooling body suits and vests. Mild cold to stimulate non-shivering thermogenesis is an accepted way to stimulate brown fat.
How Have Scientists Activated Brown Fat?
Almost all studies on rodents and humans have involved lowering room temperature to around 58 degrees or using cooling vests, garments and blankets to target the non-shivering cooling effect. Cold exposure times have generally been 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours a day for several weeks. Cooling vests have been proven to activate brown fat in studies that used a water circulating vest attached by tubes to a chiller, but they are very expensive surgical cooling vests that prohibit movement.
Can Cryotherapy and Ice Barrels Activate Brown Fat?
Recent years have brought an explosion of interest in cryotherapy, ice barrels, and the cold plunge. Brown fat research says we should be in mild cold environments. Brown fat activation is naturally triggered by exposure to mild cold - no colder than about 58 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees celsius). This is the key. Non-shivering thermogenesis temperatures. There are other benefits to cryotherapy and icing, but turning on your brown fat is not one.
Shivering is also a different process. Get colder and your body shivers. Skeletal muscles start to fire and help warm the body. Shivering is a completely different way of staying warm than brown fat's "non-shivering thermogenesis." While shivering burns calories, it is really uncomfortable and does not have the benefits of activating brown fat. Sweating burns calories too, but weight loss from sweating is just temporary loss of water weight. Neoprene waist trimmers and sauna suits will not spot remove fat or do anything but temporarily give you hope from a lighter weight on your scale.
What Diseases Are Being Studied?
Metabolic Diseases: Obesity, Weight Loss and Diabetes
Because of its role in controlling blood sugar and insulin levels, discovery of brown fat in adult humans became an increasingly important area of study. In rodent studies there is solid evidence of the importance of brown fat, and human studies continue to focus on obesity and diabetes.
Obesity is a condition that is known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Excess white fat has been a focus of research and treatment to help prevent cardiovascular disease. Only recently have researchers begun to study the role brown fat might play. It is already clear that brown fat is an endocrine organ in addition to being a thermogenic organ. Brown fat has a strong anti-inflammatory effect that plays a significant role in addressing cardiovascular disease. But its role is complex and needs further study.
Brown Fat Research and Cancer
Exciting new findings published in the journal Nature show great promise in the treatment of cancer by activating brown fat. (Seki, T., Yang, Y., Sun, X. et al. Brown-fat-mediated tumour suppression by cold-altered global metabolism. Nature 608, 421–428 (2022)). Energy is needed by the majority of cancers to fuel their out-of-control growth. Tumors use glucose and need a lot of it. Brown fat that is active is also fueled by glucose. In a study of rodents and a test study of a human, scientists found that brown fat activated by mild cold "competed" with cancer cells for glucose and slowed the growth of tumors. This effect even included untreatable cancers such as pancreatic cancer. The research opens the door to a new field of study for effective treatment of cancers by using cold exposure or other approaches to activate brown fat to treat cancer.
Brown Fat Research and Osteoporosis
Cold temperatures have an impact on bone density. Changes in bone mass from low temperatures are believed to involve brown fat. "BAT has a beneﬁcial effect on bone mass by facilitating osteogenesis [bone growth] and suppressing osteoclastogenesis [loss of bone mass]." Science is new on the relationship but brown fat is seen as an important area of research to understand and potentially treat osteoporosis.
Brown Fat and Alzheimers Disease
Alzheimers is a terrible disease that is extensively studied. Aging adults suffer a decline in their ability to maintain body temperature - that and other indications show that brown fat volume and activity declines with age. Sound evidence shows a link between this failing ability to maintain body temperature and metabolic changes linked to the development of Alzheimer's disease. Brown fat not only works to maintain body temperature - it is an endocrine organ that is involved in a number of functions that are key to preventing Alzheimers: healthy metabolism, secreting hormones, improving insulin sensitivity and increasing the utilization of glucose. Interesting research on brown fat is uncovering the relationship between the decline of brown fat with age and the development of Alzheimers.
Other Ways to Activate Brown Fat?
Diet and Supplements to Trigger Brown Fat
The Cleveland Clinic recommends a healthy diet and increasing iron in your diet for healthy brown fat. Iron is essential for the mitochondria - the "furnaces" packed into brown fat that use glucose to generate heat. Supplements are also on the market. Most include capsaicin as a main ingredient. Capsaicin has been found in studies to induce browning of white fat to help fight obesity.
Can Exercise Activate Brown Fat?
Studies have not proven that exercise alone will significantly stimulate your brown fat. Exercising in cold temperatures is a trend that was followed by the media before the Covid pandemic. Some fitness studios offered workouts in a cool room. ABC's Good Morning America reported on the health benefits of working out in cold temperatures in 2018.
Can Ice Baths, Cold Showers and Cryotherapy Activate Bat?
Ice baths and cold showers are healthy and therapeutic for many reasons. If your goal is to turn on your BAT, they are too cold for brown fat stimulation and cause shivering. You will also have higher water and energy bills. Special tubs like the cool plunge allow you to adjust the temperature and can probably be set to a non-shivering 58 degrees. But your cold tap water would also be cold enough in your bathtub for non-shivering thermogenesis. No need to spend a lot of money on a special ice tub or cold plunge unless you are looking for different health benefits from ice cold water that followers of the Wim Hof Method have found. Wearable cooling waist trimmers are on the market. Some state they activate brown adipose tissue, but this is not true because they are ice cold. Only mild cold activates brown fat. They claim to do spot removal of fat using a cool sculpting process that freezes the fat. Then you are instructed to massage the area to break the frozen fat up so the body can flush it out. There are three major flaws with the idea of wearable cooling gels for sculpting your body:
- Gels do not reach the temperatures and last for the time needed to freeze fat like the in spa cool sculpting treatments do.
- The temperature needed is freezing and can cause frost bite damage to skin. Left on for a long time they can cause injury.
- Cool sculpting in a spa or using an ice vest or waist trimmer is temporary - white fat will return.
Turn Down Your Thermostat and Turn On BAT?
Absolutely. Lowering your thermostat in the summer to around 58-60 degrees creates the same non-shivering environment that has been used in many studies of brown fat. While fine for a laboratory study, the cost to you of cooling your home that much is crazy and bad for climate change. When it is cool outside, you can set your thermostat lower and save money and the environment. (Your spouse and other family members might not want to go along.) A better option is to always get outside and be active. Wear lighter clothing to allow your body to chill. Once you build up tolerance to mild cold, your new internal furnace will make you comfortable in shorts and a tee shirt in the high 50's to 60's.
Can Medications Activate Brown Fat?
Numerous medications and even stem cells are being explored as ways to activate brown fat. Like any medication, development and testing for safety will take many years. Off label use of some existing medications is also an area of study.
While the discovery of brown fat in humans is recent, it is very clear that it is an area of research with major promise. Our health will be improved our knowledge of brown adipose tissue and fat metabolism increases. In the near term, wellness wearables, lifestyle changes that increase mild cold exposure, diet, and exercise are all natural ways to tap into the power of brown fat for better health and wellness. Future studies will explore the effect active brown fat has on aging due to growing evidence it reduces inflammation. Related work on peak performance aging is looking at maintaining flow and performance as we get older including using a weighted vest for hiking.