- Once believed to only exist in infants, scientists have isolated trace amounts of brown fat in adult humans.
- Cold water therapy allegedly stimulates brown fat production, thus causing weight loss.
- According to some health and nutrition, brown fat could eventually render obesity a thing of the past.
There’s certainly been no shortage of hype lately around the issue of “brown fat” and its apparent potential to revolutionize the way we address obesity and weight loss.
Still a relatively new discovery in adult humans, brown adipose tissue (BAT) is an entirely different substance than that stubborn rolls of fat found in the midsection area, which are commonly known as white fat. Rather, brown fat is actually capable of burning energy. The theory, which on the surface admittedly stands to reason, is that if you have more brown fat in your system you will lose weight — without even having to try very hard.
The science behind the role BAT plays in weight reduction is indeed promising, but not surprisingly with something that has the potential of generating multi-billions of dollars annually, selective reporting and misinformation have blurred the lines between what is truth and what is fiction.
What is brown fat?
The primary role of white fat is to store energy and release it when other organs need it. Unfortunately, many of us have more white fat than we’d care to have, compromising not only our physical appearance but our health as well.
Brown fat (BAT), on the other hand, is considerably more elusive, with only trace amounts of it well-hidden deep in our necks, shoulders and torsos, and women generally producing more of it than men. In fact, it’s so hard to locate in adult humans that it wasn’t believed to exist at all until recently. Scientists now know that BAT plays a role in thinness at all stages of life, to the point where it’s been shown that children who have more brown fat grow up to be leaner adults.
The main function of brown fat is to raise our temperature when we’re cold. The substance has long been known to exist in large amounts in infants, this because babies don’t have the same capacity to regulate their body temperatures as adults. By burning through all that energy stored in their white fat, brown fat provides thermogenesis to infants who haven’t yet developed the ability to shiver. As adults, we no longer need brown fat to regulate our body temperature, so we produce considerably less of it.
The science behind brown fat and weight loss
Studies have shown that when activated from its resting state, brown fat burns through a huge amount of energy stored in the white fat so many of us would like to lose.
The trick is to activate those trace amounts of brown fat hiding in our body, or better, find a way to have our bodies produce more of it. To date, there haven’t been any major breakthroughs on how exactly to do this, but it has been categorically proven that prolonged exposure to cold temperatures increases the amount of brown fat our bodies produce.
Several legitimate scientific studies conducted over the past decade have revealed that brown fat does in fact burn energy when our bodies are exposed to cold temperatures. However, there’s also evidence to suggest that even when we are exposed to the cold, BAT’s ability to eat up calories is so insignificant that it’s essentially irrelevant.
Interestingly enough, it’s been shown that the only humans who don’t appear to have any brown fat in their systems are those who are obese. As such, evidence suggests that brown fat plays a far greater role in our weight distribution than previously understood.
Everything rests on whether brown fat’s energy-burning properties can be harnessed in amounts large enough to burn significant amounts of white fat in adult humans. If this is indeed possible, as several researchers believe it is, obesity could someday become a thing of the past. With 39.7% of Americans over age 20 reported to be obese and many millions more considerably overweight, the potential for such a discovery would be immense.
Can cold water therapy stimulate brown adipose tissue production?
Hydrotherapy and cryotherapy have a long history, going all the way back to antiquity and the temperature-controlled baths of the Roman Empire. Many people still tout the alleged health benefits of Nordic spas, where people alternately soak in very hot and very cold water.
To this end, some further believe that shocking the body by immersing it in extremely cold water produces enough brown fat to burn off calories. One recent study showed that over one three-hour period of exposure to extremely cold temperatures, brown fat ate up 250 calories in an adult human, almost entirely comprised of white fat.
Other studies have demonstrated that when areas of the body are exposed to cold temperatures where brown fat is active, the cold stimulates the production of brown fat, increasing a person’s metabolic rate by roughly 25-40%. The problem is, of course, that immersing oneself in freezing cold water for three full hours just to lose 250 calories is hardly a productive weight-loss plan.
Proponents of hydrotherapy for weight-loss believe that BAT plays a potentially crucial role in addressing the hormonal dysfunctions partially responsible for obesity by stimulating the hormone leptin, which is a major factor regulating appetite.
More study is needed, however, with the only data presently available on the subject being culled from studies performed on rats. To date there have been no human studies to prove this theory.
Will exercise stimulate brown fat?
Some recent studies conducted on rodents purport that regular exercise plays a role in making both brown and white fat more brown. What has been discovered is that exercising muscles release certain hormones that have a “browning” effect on fat cells when activated by cold.
This may be wonderful news for weight-conscious rodents, but studies conducted on humans found that exercising in cold temperatures does not stimulate the production of brown fat. In fact, the study came to the exact opposite conclusion: cold-stimulated brown fat was actually reduced when people exercised in cold temperatures.
Can nutrition supplements or medications increase BAT production?
Despite what some weight loss product sellers may claim, there are no supplements or medications that are able to increase brown fat in humans at this point in time.
However, there is a modicum of evidence suggesting that the capsinoids in chili peppers activate brown fat, but more study is needed before it can be concluded that the brown fat activated by capsinoid-containing plants is able to burn through white fat in humans.
If you’re looking to rid your body of stubborn fat, there are safer, more evidence-based methods. Some of these — CoolSculpting, namely — also employ cooling, but with a proven track record and significantly fewer risks. If you’d like to explore these other options, ask a cosmetic doctor on our forum for more information.