Considering all it does for us, body fat gets a bad rap. Fat, or adipose tissue, is essential for storing energy, protecting our internal organs, helping to regulate body temperature, and participating in the production of many hormones.
However, body fat is not always the same. The most common type is called white fat or white adipose tissue, and its main function is to store calories for energy. But there is also a second type of fat, called brown fat, or brown adipose tissue (BAT), which exists in small amounts in all adults and whose simple function is to keep us warm when we are cold. White fat can sometimes turn into brown fat and at this stage is sometimes referred to as beige fat.
In recent years, scientists have discovered that brown fat may play an even bigger role in health in terms of weight loss, diabetes, and even heart health. This article will tell you everything you need to know about what brown fat is, what it does, and how it affects your health.
What is brown fat?
Health researchers have become interested in brown fat because of its apparent role in calorie burning and thermogenesis, which is the process by which the body generates heat. Brown fat contains many more mitochondria, the part of the cell responsible for energy production, than white fat. This may be why brown fat is more abundant in infants and hibernating mammals. Adults have much lower amounts, usually located in the neck, around the shoulder blades and kidneys, and along the spinal cord. Because of brown fat’s ability to burn calories, researchers have studied its role in fighting obesity.
Brown fat or white fat: what’s the difference?
White fat is the type of fat most of us are familiar with, it’s what the body stores for energy but can lead to obesity when not used. Most of the fat in an adult body is white fat. Brown fat is found primarily in infants and hibernating mammals, to help with temperature regulation.
The two fats differ not only in their function and color, but also in their structure. White fat cells have large lipid droplets for energy storage, while brown fat has smaller droplets and tons of mitochondria. Often referred to as the “power plants” of the cell, mitochondria produce energy and are activated by cold to burn calories and jump-start thermogenesis. Mitochondria are also rich in iron, which gives brown fat its color.
What are the potential health benefits of brown fat?
The research on brown fat is relatively new and most of it is preliminary or has only involved animals or small groups of humans (less than 50), so more research is needed. Here’s what we currently know about brown fat and the following conditions:
Weight loss and metabolism.
It’s thought that when brown fat is activated (in other words, when your mitochondria are told to burn calories and produce heat), it can absorb and use compounds called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Previous research in rodents and humans has linked high BCAA levels to obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes, suggesting that lowering these levels may improve these conditions.
Although more research is needed to determine the relationship between brown fat activation through cold exposure and BCAA levels in humans, a small study published in Nature in 2019 examined its effects on BCAA levels in 33 men healthy youngsters and found that two hours of cold exposure led to lower BCAA levels in those who already had high brown fat activity. Another study published the same year in Autophagy found that the thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) activated brown fat and thermogenesis in mice, without the need for exposure to cold. This is a promising future research avenue, linking the treatment of obesity and metabolic diseases to the direct effect of T3 on brown fat activation. When brown fat is activated, more calories are burned for energy, leading to better insulin sensitivity and appetite regulation. »
Unlike white fat, brown fat is a metabolically active tissue: it burns glucose for fuel. And there is preliminary evidence that brown fat can significantly influence metabolic health. A small study published in April 2022 in The Journal of Nuclear Medicine recruited 34 college students and activated their brown fat by lowering core body temperature. A correlation has been found between brown fat and metabolic disorders such as diabetes. The researchers believe that a high level of brown fat activation may be an early warning sign that a person may be developing diabetes, although more rigorous research is needed.
A study published in Nature Medicine in 2021 found a correlation between the presence of brown fat in a person’s body and their risk of cardiometabolic disease. Specifically, the study found that people with more easily detectable brown fat (using positron emission tomography) had a lower risk of abnormal cholesterol, coronary heart disease, hypertension, and congestive heart failure.
How to activate brown fat
Humans tend to have the most brown fat in childhood, and we lose a lot of it as we age. But if brown fat has health benefits, is there a way to increase the amount?
It is generally accepted that an adult cannot actively increase the amount of brown fat that they inherently possess. But while brown fat cannot be created, there is some evidence that the brown fat we do have can be activated and white fat potentially oxidized. Again, the research is still in its infancy, but it appears that certain conditions can activate brown fat by signaling your mitochondria to burn calories and produce heat. Here is what is currently known about how the following factors contribute to brown fat activation:
A review of studies published in Frontiers in Physiology in 2019 looked at the effects of certain foods on thermogenesis, the heating process that activates brown fat. The review largely included studies in rats, but found that the spices turmeric and curcumin, foods containing resveratrol (such as wine), green tea, and spicy foods containing capsaicin can activate thermogenesis and/or trigger fat oxidation, which is the darkening of white fat.
More research is needed to verify the effectiveness of these ingredients in BAT in humans, particularly as the doses required for some of them (eg, resveratrol) to achieve results may be too high. Furthermore, an analysis published in Frontiers in Neuroscience in 2021 found that caffeine evokes BAT thermogenesis in rodents, but its effect on BAT thermogenesis in humans remains unclear.
Previous research in rodents has shown that certain herbal dietary supplements, such as kudzu flower oil, ginseng, quercetin (a plant flavonoid found in many fruits and vegetables), propolis, and oleuropein ( a compound found in green olives) activate thermogenesis or oxidize white. fat in rodents. However, the results are not directly transferable to humans and more research is needed.
Increasing your workouts won’t create more brown fat altogether, but it could oxidize existing white fat into what researchers call beige fat. There is a correlation between the level of physical activity you engage in and a better overall distribution of body fat, including the amount of brown fat. Managing your overall body fat by working toward healthy weight goals will improve your overall fat distribution. Recent studies show that exercise causes the body to switch from storing white fat to storing beige fat, although it is not known whether beige fat is directly beneficial metabolically or if it is an adaptive response.
Taking a polar dip in an ice bath or cryotherapy chamber can activate brown fat by triggering thermogenesis, according to a study published in the Journal of Obesity in 2018. But taking a brisk walk in winter can work just as well. right. Adapting your body to cold temperatures by taking a walk outside or taking an occasional cold shower can help.
While the potential to harness the power of brown fat in humans for weight loss and other health benefits is promising, scientists have yet to discover it. Most of the existing studies on the subject have been done on animals, and more research is needed to determine how to effectively activate brown fat in humans.
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