To Lose Weight, Consider The Many Colors (Purposes) of Fat

11/07/2016 | 18 min. read

Dr. David Williams

Dr. David Williams

To Lose Weight, Consider The Many Colors (Purposes) of Fat

There are three types of fat in the body. We have the normal white fat which just stores extra calories. It's the fat that accumulates around the belly, the hip and the thighs and the everyone loves to hate.

Then we have brown fat (commonly referred to as BAT, brown adipose tissue). Brown fat cells contain numerous, large mitochondria...those energy-burning, cellular factories that burn calories and create heat. We've know about brown fat since the 1960's but, until recently researchers only thought brown fat existed in babies. Since newborns haven't developed the ability to shiver, brown fat produces heat to help them stay warm. (It is also what helps protect the vital organs of hibernating animals.) It was only six years ago that researchers discovered that brown fat existed in adults and was metabolically active.

The location of brown fat in the body is less predictable, which made finding it difficult. Brown fat appears to be mostly in the neck and shoulder region but, it has also been found in the chest, down the spine and mixed to a degree among white fat cells. Although brown fat cells only make up a small percentage of the total fat in the body, they have a disproportionately high number of mitochondria and contain a protein called, thermogenin, which makes them "super" fat burners. In fact, brown fat can produce 300 times more heat per gram than any other tissue in the body.

Brown Fat Is Now Considered a Thermogenic Organ, Helping You To Lose Weight

New research has just revealed brown fat actually communicates with the brain via the sensory nervous system. When brown fat tissue is activated, it "talks" to the brain letting it know how much fat is available and how much has been lost. The brain responds by telling it to break down additional fat, and either release the energy or use it for body functions. This is the first study to demonstrate the existence of a feedback loop between brown fat tissue and the brain.

Brown fat neural connections to the brain and other properties make it totally different from white fat. When it was first described in the 1551 by the Swiss naturalist, Konrad Gessner, he called it, "neither fat nor flesh-but something in between". It was a brilliant observation. It didn't totally resemble fat because of its darker color which comes from its intense blood supply, iron content and many mitochondria. If anything, it looks somewhat like muscle tissue containing lots of fat globules.

In our embryonic development stage, we have stems cells that start to specialize and develop into specific tissues that form the various parts of our body. Muscle and fat cells evolve from the same precursor cells. Brown fat cells have been shown to have proteins that are found only in muscle cells and not white fat tissue. In many aspects, brown fat is a closer "relative" to muscle tissue than it is to white fat.

One of the characteristics of mammals is that of maintaining a constant body temperature. We maintain body heat primarily through muscle contraction. Heat is the by-product of muscle contraction. (Muscle contractions really aren't very efficient with about 50% of the energy being lost as heat.) When the surrounding temperature drops we increase muscle contractions and/or start to shiver. Shivering is really just muscle contractions on a smaller scale. We maintain body heat through activity.

Babies haven't developed the ability to shiver so the body utilizes brown fat activity to create heat. Brown fat specializes in heat production. It could be compared to a car idling with the heater on. It just burns fuel (triglycerides, fatty acids, blood sugar, etc.) to create heat, but doesn't go anywhere. Other mammals need brown fat for heat generation when they hibernate since there is very little muscle activity. Once we develop the ability to shiver, the need for brown fat decreases since we don't hibernate.

Brown Fat Stores Tend to Steadily Decrease As We Age

As we get older, our brown fat stores decrease. And it's probably not surprise that thin people tend to retain more brown fat than obese individuals and it also tends to be more active. Drug companies are excited about brown fat because they hope to develop drugs that will increase brown fat levels and/or its activity, resulting in weight-loss.

The third type of fat is called beige fat. Beige fat was just discovered in 2012. It was even harder to locate since it doesn't accumulate in pockets like white or brown fat but, instead, is dispersed within white fat cells. Much like brown fat, beige fat has the thermogenin protein, which burns calories to generate heat. What makes researchers really interested in beige fat is that they can increase the amount of beige fat cells by turning white fat into beige fat. (Unlike beige fat, researchers have only been able to "activate" brown fat and not significantly increase the overall number of cells.)

There are some side benefits of the calorie-burning by brown and beige fat. (Since brown and beige fat perform basically the same functions, I'll just refer to brown fat unless there is a difference that needs to be noted.)

Brown fat can fuel itself with triglycerides and sugar taken directly from the blood stream. Remember, triglycerides are the fatty molecules that increase the risk of developing metabolic syndrome leading to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Through their removal of blood glucose and triglycerides, brown fat cells regulate blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity. A loss of insulin sensitivity (insulin resistance) is a primary factor in diabetes. Improving insulin sensitivity is a monumental step in both the prevention and treatment of diabetes.

In studies with mice, the effects of brown fat were nothing short of amazing. Researchers transplanted brown fat into the visceral cavities of mice and fed them a normal diet for 8 to 12 weeks. After that period, the mice exhibited improved glucose tolerance, increased insulin sensitivity, lower body weights and decreased fat mass. Overall metabolism was increased throughout their bodies.

With our obesity and diabetic epidemics, it's understandable why the drug companies would be pumped about this new research. They dream of diet pill that would allow one to burn off calories without exercising and treat diabetes at the same time. Like the hundreds of other drugs that held promise, we'll have to wait and see if this one becomes a reality. And then there's always the bigger question, will it be safe?

Research Shows that If You "Activate" Brown & Beige Fat, It Can Help you Lose Weight

When you delve deeper into the research on brown and beige fat, the data reveals several natural methods we can use now to "activate" these fat cells and possibly even increase their numbers.

Keep in mind, none of this is going to do you any good if you ramp up your brown/beige fat cells and start burning extra calories but don't watch your diet. It might be possible to burn an extra 250 to 500 calories a day using these techniques but, if you start eating another bag of potato chips, cookies or drink a soda or continue to eat junk food, you're wasting your time. However, if you eat a clean diet and moderately exercise, this is a way to accelerate your calorie-burning. Burning an extra 500 calories a day translates to a loss of a pound of fat a week.

Even small changes in your energy balance can help you lose weight. For example, a four-year study involving over 50,000 nurses found that drinking just one serving of soda or fruit juice a day for a year resulted in an extra 10 to 12 pounds of weight gain and an 80% increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, just a small but consistent increase in your metabolic rate is like turning up the body's furnace a couple of degrees for a year. Then you're burning excess fuel (calories).

10 Ways to Activate Your Calorie Burning Brown/Beige Fat Cells to Help You Lose Weight

1. Use Cold To Activate Brown Fat Cells

Brown fat cells are activated by cold temperatures in babies and mammals that don't have the ability to shiver. In the 1970's the army noticed that soldiers sent to train in cold regions returned with significantly less amounts of body fat unlike those training in more temperate climates. At the time they didn't recognize brown fat as the cause but, one study reported that a week of mild exercise in the cold for 2 1/2 hours daily resulted in a loss of between 1 3/4 and 5 pounds of body fat.

There are several benefits of using cold to activate brown fat cells. First, if you live in a cold climate or it's wintertime, "thermal dieting" is free. Second, it doesn't have to be uncomfortably cold to work and third, it only takes a couple of hours or less of cold exposure to work. Another benefit of "cold therapy" is that it doesn't leave you hungry. In one study six men remained inactive for a three hour period while wearing a cold suit that circulated water, cooled to 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit over their skin. The water was just cold enough to drop their body temperature but not so cold that it produced excess shivering. The researchers wanted to make sure any extra calories being burned were the result of brown fat activity and not from shivering muscles. During that three hour period the men burned an extra 250 calories compared to what they would have burned if they would have just been inactive without the cooling suits. That 250 calories per day over a two-week period translates to a loss of one pound of body fat, without any exercising or dieting.

In another recent Japanese study involved 22 healthy males who had either low or undetectable brown fat cell activity. Half maintained their normal lifestyles. The other half were exposed for two hours a day, for six weeks, in a room cooled to 63 degrees. Brown fat activity jumped 50% and they lost 5% of their total body fat. As the study progressed their brown fat cells became more efficient and active in burning fat. At the first of the study the men burned 108 calories during their 2 hours in the cold. At the end of the study they were burning 289 calories.

During summertime, dropping your thermostat to 60 degrees could get expensive. Opening the window in the winter is a different scenario and something we all might want to consider. Our ability to easily alter our environment is another example of how subtle technological changes we've embraced in the last few decades can affect our bodies in ways we never anticipated. With the widespread use of central heating and air-conditioning our bodies are no longer subjected to huge variations in temperature throughout the year. Instead of sleeping in 50 or 60 degree temperatures (or colder) like our ancestors, our bedrooms, our cars and our work environments are kept at a constant 72 degrees. And instead of going to bed when it gets dark and rising with the sun, artificial lighting has increased the length of our days and reduced our production of melatonin. Both of these factors have had a subtle yet, negative influence on brown fat cell activity and our overall health.

One University of California professor has an alternative to cooling a whole room or investing in a whole-body cooling suit. He's developed a vest that holds ice packs he calls the Cold Shoulder that cools the areas where brown fat resides. It's simple to use. Twice a day, you simply take the vest out of the freezer and wear it in a comfortable room while watching television, working on your computer, driving in the car, etc., until the ice melts. It transfers heat from your body and forces your brown fat cells to kick in. (This brings to mind my college days when I tried to sleep on a unheated waterbed. It was a prime example of how cold water can quickly transfer body heat from the body. With the vest, I'm sure the heat transfer is far less drastic and more comfortable.)

The vest is very simple and something that could be made rather easily if you don't want to spend $200. The Cold Shoulder is an adjustable vest with sewn-in pockets that hold gel-packs against the front and back of your shoulders. Displacing body heat and triggering a boost in brown fat calorie-burning is undoubtedly what was happening to the U.S. Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps. I remember an interview where he outlined his daily diet and reported he was consuming 12,000 calories a day. It was hard for me imagine anyone being able to burn that many calories with any type of training program. But, spending hours a day in a cold pool would definitely suck the heat from his body and require the brown fat to kick in an effort to maintain his core temperature. Over the next decade, I suspect we'll see more and more ways to cool the body to trigger brown fat activation. Maybe one day we'll all sit around the television at night in our cold suits burning away excess body fat.

2. Use Food To Stimulate Brown Fat Activity

There are numerous food ingredients that also stimulate brown fat activity. One of the best know is capsaicin, the compound found in chilies. In one study researchers found that oral ingestion of capsaicin mimicked the effects that repeated cold exposure had on the activation of brown fat. If you like the taste and feel of hot spicy foods and sauces, you're in luck.

Several weight-loss formulas include chili extracts and capsaicin in an effort to increase brown fat activity but, it appears that actually tasting the spice may play a part in its activity. The burning sensation in the mouth appears to be part of the trigger that causes the body to boost its metabolism and heat up.

3. Eat More Easily Oxidized Fats

It appears that a diet that's rich in easily oxidized fats help promote brown fat cell activation. This helps explain why omega-3 rich oils like those from fish and fish oil, flaxseed, chia and hemp seed oils have all been shown to promote weight loss.

4. Activate Fat Burning with Melatonin

The hormone melatonin has been shown to activate the fat-burning activity of brown fat cells. If you've been a long-time reader of Alternatives, this probably doesn't come as any surprise. I've talked about the ill-effects of not sleeping in a fully darkened room on many occasions. Light at night is a contributory factor in increased breast cancer, obesity and long list of other health problems. Artificial light sources lower much-needed melatonin production, which has been shown to be essential in cancer prevention. And, it's well-established that "night owls" have a greater tendency to be overweight or obese.

5. Take Curcumin and Green Tea Extract

Curcumin (the key component in turmeric) and green tea extract (EGCG or epigallocatechin gallate) are other food compounds that naturally activate brown fat. And, that's only one of the many reasons I include them in my multi-vitamin/mineral formulation.

6. Take Resveratrol

Resveratrol, one of the polyphenols found in fruit, has been shown to slow aging, fight cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, obesity and diabetes but, how it works is still somewhat of a mystery. Min Du, a professor at Washington State University, recently found that resveratrol converted excess white fat into calorie-burning beige fat.

Dr. Du fed mice a high fat diet with resveratrol in amounts equivalent to 12 ounces of fruit per day for humans. Those receiving the resveratrol gained 40% less weight than control mice. His work demonstrated that the resveratrol-fed mice converted white fat to beige fat. Based on what he saw, he recommends all fruits but especially blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes and apples. He says wines like merlot or cabernet sauvignon contain resveratrol but, the filtering process in their production removes most of it. That's why he recommends eating the whole fruit.

7. Boost Weight Loss with Berberine

Berberine, the compound isolated from the Chinese medicinal plant, has been shown to elicit all the same beneficial results associated with brown fat activity. Berberine protects against excess weight gain, reduces free fatty acids and improves glucose tolerance. In animal studies it has now been demonstrated that berberine raises body temperature, increases energy expenditure and improves cold tolerance. And in the latest study, researchers demonstrated berberine didn't just activate brown fat, it also induced the conversion of white fat to brown.

8. Harness the Power of Exercise

It has been shown that after exercise, muscle cells release a powerful hormone called irisin which makes white fat behave like brown fat. In one study, mice were injected with a gene that tripled the blood levels of irisin. These mice, who were obese and had dangerously high blood sugar levels, lost weight and regained control of their glucose levels in just 10 days.

9. Increase Your Intake of Ursolic Acid

Ursolic acid increases brown fat and skeletal muscle mass, while decreasing obesity, glucose intolerance and fatty liver disease. Ursolic acid is a molecule found in apple peels and in several herbs particularly some of the Ayurvedic herbs such as holy basil (Osimum sanctun) Boswellia serrate, Boerhaavia diffusa and Asparagus racemosus. It can also be found in blueberries, cranberries, rosemary, oregano, thyme and plums. Ursolic seems to be relatively unknown except for within the body-building community, where it has been dubbed a promising "body recomposition" agent.

There haven't been a lot of studies relating to ursolic acid's effects on brown fat but, at a dosage of 150 milligrams, taken three times daily with meals, it has been shown to increase irisin levels (12% in only 8 weeks), the same hormone released during exercise. It also has been shown to increase levels of Insulin Grown Factor-1 (IGF-1) (22.8% in 8 weeks), which accounts for some of the blood sugar control exhibited by brown fat. It also reduced blood glucose by 53% over a period of 11 weeks.

Ursolic acid is very safe at the above dosage and from all the available research, it appears to be a very promising natural compound. Combined with a normal (read..healthy) diet and exercise, it can reduce fat accumulation and increase muscle tissue. And, during periods of fasting, it also triggers fat burning via brown fat activity and preserves muscle tissue.

10. Eat More Garlic

Garlic contains sulfur compounds that increases the growth of brown fat tissue. While garlic isn't the strongest "fat-burner", it has such a long list of other health attributes that it should be a part of everyone's daily diet. Garlic doesn't directly burn fat. However, when taken regularly, animal studies have repeatedly shown that it increases the production of additional brown fat cells.

To Lose Weight, It's Also Important to Protect Your Brown Fat

During my research I uncovered that brown fat activity could be impaired or blocked by certain drug use or nutritional deficiencies.

The class of hypertension drugs know as beta-blockers impair brown fat activity. I have no doubt that there are dozens of drugs that do the same thing and contribute to our obesity problem. Pharmaceutical companies have no incentive to test for this so don't expect to see a lot of research in this area. However, if one of the side-effects of a drug is weight gain, I would suspect brown fat cell activity could be involved. Weight gain and adverse effects on insulin sensitivity and triglyceride levels are common problems associated with beta-blocker use. Beta-blockers inhibit the activity brown fat cells.

Nutritional deficiencies that can impede brown fat activity and lead to weight gain or make it hard to lose excess fat include deficiencies in essential fatty acids, iron, vitamin A, riboflavin, creatine, selenium and iodine. I talked about the need for essential fatty acids earlier. Iron induces the oxidation of fats. A iron deficiency would make the process less efficient and impair brown fat cell activity. Iron's relationship to brown fat/thyroid activity further explains why iron deficiency anemia leads to excess weight gain.

When active brown fat was first discovered in adults, many proclaimed it was the long-awaited answer to our obesity problem. It was the holy grail everyone had been searching for. No longer would we have to exercise or worry about what we ate. All we needed to do was get the body to produce more brown fat or ramp up the activity of the existing brown fat. It hasn't been that simple. Once again we had to "re-discover", that the workings of the human body are very complex and inter-connected. Dr. George Goodheart, the father of applied Kinesiology, probably summed it up best when he stated, "the body is simply intricate and intricately simple".

Brown fat is not the holy grail of defeating obesity but, along with a clean diet and exercise, it can definitely be one of the most effective tools we can safely use to help stop our obesity and diabetes epidemics. It's amazing how so many beneficial habits and so-called healing foods work by increasing brown fat activity. Unfortunately, the general public doesn't have a clue about brown fat and most of the mainstream medical community could care less. And although the pharmaceutical industry is keenly aware of brown fat, they also understand there's far more profit in "managing" health problems than in curing them.

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Dr. David Williams

Meet Dr. David Williams

For more than 25 years, Dr. David Williams has traveled the world researching alternative therapies for our most common health problems—therapies that are inexpensive and easy to use, and therapies that treat the root cause of a problem rather than just its symptoms.

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