Burn Fat by being COLD?!

If you are looking for a scientific way to trick your body into burning fat by being cold, this article will give you the chills!

Researchers have been looking at the way fat tissue functions as a way to treat the current obesity epidemic. It was originally thought that humans and mammals expressed two types of fat cells: "white" and "brown".

Frozen Tree Branch

White Fat

White fat is the more common, unhealthy and hard to get rid of fat tissue. It's the fat that in excess leads to disease and poor quality of life. We used to see white fat as nothing but a source of energy. But now it's understand white fat releases the hormone leptin telling our brain we are full in response to food intake. Leptin is directly related to the level of white fat you have. Therefore the more fat you have the more leptin you release telling you to stop eating. Unfortunately, high levels of white fat also leads to inappropriate release of other regulating hormones. This causes an interference with leptin being received in the brain known as leptin resistance. And this leads to a downward spiral of overeating in the overweight population. 

So in summary, white fat is more than just a fuel source it helps us regulate our food intake. It can however go wrong when we have excess fat stores. But in terms of burning fat we can't really manipulate our white fat stores. They are simply a calorie rich store for us to use up.

Brown Fat

Brown fat on the other hand has a very finite source. Surprisingly leaner people with a lower BMI have much greater amounts of brown fat. That is because brown fat is much healthier! It is rich in uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) which works within a fat cells mitochondria to produce heat by burning calories. Sadly for us brown fat declines with age to the point it may no longer be active.

However, it is thought that some people might still have active brown fat. For the rest of us all may not be lost. If we have the capabilities to produce brown fat in the first place our stem cells may still hold the information to produce that calorie burning machine. 

So don't go reaching for your extra blankets just yet...

Dog Wrapped In Blankets

Because in steps "brite" or "beige" fat the combination of white and brown fat!

Beige Fat

 "Beige" fat cells are developed around our unhealthy "white" fat cells. They aren't exactly produced from the same genetic information as our calorie burning brown fat.  But they do mimic the actions of brown fat cells, just to a lesser extent. They have a lower UCP1 content meaning a lower ability to produce heat. Beige fat cells are produced in response to cold exposure and exercise and with more frequent exposure may be able to replicate the full calorie burning power of brown fat cells. That means you could still burn fat by being cold.

Plus, it's not just cold exposure that causes the formation of these beige cells. Exercise is thought to have the same effect. Therefore it might be the case that both exercise and cold exposure could work in combination to provide greater fat burning benefits. This area of research is still very new and more is yet to be uncovered about beige fat and it's role in weight control.

So How Does It Work?

When exposed to cold temperatures our body releases noradrenaline / norepinephrine. These chemicals act on our remaining brown fat to start the fat burning process and produce heat. They also work on our white fat to transforming them into beige fat cells.

But what temperature exactly works? Well as this is still a new area of research we may be left waiting a while before there is a general consensus.

Looking at one study here are a few examples of what lead to signs of heat production aka calorie burning:

1) 2 hours in a room wearing light clothing at a temperature of 17°C / 63°F.

2) Wearing light clothing with room temperature of 23°C / 73°F and dipping one foot into a cold bath with a water temperature of 8°C / 46°F.

Do You Have The Chills Yet?

While the evidence is pretty compelling there is still a lot we don't know. One of the issues of testing the success of cold exposure is that everyone is different. We all likely have a different level of brown and beige fat naturally. Plus our bodies are highly adaptive and become acclimatized to new temperatures. That likely means the temperature required for cold exposure to work will vary per person. 

One final point to take away from the studies of cold exposure is that ice baths were not mentioned. I will not go into this in much detail as ice baths could be an article of their own. This idea of cold exposure is a prolonged event that allows your body to get past the stage of shivering to then produce heat for itself. Ice baths are not sustainable enough to get beyond the shivering stage.