Brown adipose tissue also known as brown fat is a very unique yet unexplored organ. It is responsible for warming your body up in uncomfortable and extremely cold temperatures, and it does that by utilising sugar and fat from your bloodstream, which eventually improves your metabolism. It is also thought that full activation of brown fat may increase total daily energy expenditure by 20%.
Currently, we know that almost everyone has a certain amount of brown fat from the moment of birth and its volume decreases as we age. Probably due to the fact that infants cannot shiver – which is the body’s way of stimulating heat – and warm themselves up by moving the muscles. Adults, on the other hand, rarely experience cold and the main hypothesis suggests that their stores of brown fat fade away without being activated. This is very unfortunate because the metabolic impact of this organ can potentially help many people regulate their blood sugar levels, improve insulin sensitivity and fight obesity.
So, let’s find out, what are the ways to activate, maintain and increase the brown fat cells in your body.
How to find out if you have brown fat at all?
Brown fat was first described in the 16th century but for a long time, scientists didn’t know it was present in human adults. It is still very unexplored tissue: many people have never heard about it and it is very unclear how to find out if you have it without conducting a high-tech test. Currently, there is no special formula to count how much brown fat is in your body without measuring it and the only way to check your volume of brown fat is via a method that combines positron emission tomography and computed tomography – PET/CT. It is important to note that results depend on the circumstances of the scan conducted. If brown fat is not activated or not activated enough, it may remain undetected by the machine. For example, one of the other studies found that PET/CT can detect much more brown fat if participants are in a room cooled to 16°C (61°F), which is the temperature cold enough to activate the tissue.
It is also known that many metabolically unhealthy adults, for example, individuals who suffer from diabetes or obesity, are less likely to have brown adipose tissue present in their bodies. On the contrary, lean athletes have more brown fat than average people. So we can only assume that the more healthy and athletic you are, the more BAT is present in your body.
Is it possible to build up more brown fat?
The short answer is yes, it is possible! The longer version – you can increase the volume of the brown fat cells in your body if you are healthy or not suffering from a serious illness but more studies need to be conducted on different people to find out the possibilities and ways of building up the BAT in metabolically unhealthy people. Currently, the research is conducted mostly on healthy men or mice.
Browning of white fat
In many cases, when scientists speak about increasing or activating brown fat tissue not only do they mean pre-existing brown fat tissue, but also the process of ‘browning’ the beige fat into brown fat and white fat into ‘beige’ fat.
White fat is a ‘regular’ fat and its excess is associated with an increased risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Beige fat tissue, as you have guessed, is something in-between two kinds of cells – it is not completely brown but has some qualities of BAT, for example, more mitochondria and more fragmented pieces of fat instead of whole ones. Even though some scientists consider it brown, It’s still different from the original brown adipose tissue and requires more research, that – without a doubt – will be conducted soon enough.
One solid and four potential ways to activate brown fat
1Cold exposure, noradrenalin, and succinate release
Exposing the body to cold temperatures is the best and most effective way to activate and build up brown adipose tissue.
How does it work? When our bodies experience the ‘cold shock’ the temperature regulation centre in the hypothalamus increases the release of norepinephrine – the alertness hormone. It sends signals to brown fat for starting heat production also or thermogenesis. Brown fat starts making heat from ‘fuel’ – sugar and fat from bloodstreams all around the body.
A 2014 study involved a group of healthy young men that were wearing a cooling suit at 10°C (50°F), for 2 hours daily 5 days a week. After a month, their brown fat volume increased by 45% from the baseline.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, there is some evidence that brown adipose tissue can not only increase in volume but also add new cells. That might happen as a result of epinephrine and succinate affecting the beige fat and converting those cells to brown fat. Succinate is a natural metabolic which, together with epinephrine, acts on the brown fat and increases the thermogenesis during cold exposure. During cold exposure, succinate is rapidly taken up by brown adipocyte mitochondria, and its oxidation is required for its activation of thermogenesis.
Practical tips on how to activate your brown fat with cold exposure
1. Shivering is the key. Without shivering you will not release the succinate which induces the thermogenesis in brown fat.
2. Get in, get out, repeat. To get yourself shivering, you have to do several repetitions of exposing yourself to cold. For example, you can stay in the cold shower for 30 seconds, then get out for a minute without drying yourself with the towel – which will stimulate more shivering – and get back into cold water again.
3. Practice cold exposure 1-5 times a week. For many people, three cold exposure practices per week are optimal, but even one exposure per week can be valuable.
4. The temperature should be uncomfortable. The result of your cold exposure practice depends on how cold-adapted you are. Different people may need different temperatures that feel just uncomfortable enough to stay in but not unbearable. In most cases, it’s 15°C (60°F).
Healthhack from Healthypedia
Some may be tempted to aggressively expose themselves to cold as a means of increasing thermogenesis and activating brown fat. However, becoming too ‘cold-adapted’ can diminish energy-burning effects and make the therapy irrelevant. You need to use the minimum effective stimulus to promote the positive effect. So, to maximize metabolic boosts from these practices, it is important to slowly acclimate your body by gradually decreasing temperature over time in small steps – allowing for incremental increases in benefits.
Studies suggest that exercise has the ability to stimulate the browning of white fat cells. What is behind this phenomenon? It is not completely clear, but from an evolutionary standpoint, it appears that our ancestors were blessed with natural stores of these healthy brown adipose tissues; however, as we’ve become increasingly sedentary in modern times they have decreased significantly resulting in less efficient regulation of our energy balance. Exercise may initiate an important transition back towards what was once normal.
3Changes in diet
We already mentioned that lean people tend to have more brown fat, while adults with obesity may not have it at all. That alone may lead us to the conclusion that having a healthy diet and proper nutrition routine is important for maintaining high levels of BAT.
However, there is some research that suggests that certain foods may boost brown fat increase. According to a 2012 study conducted on mice, a chemical called ursolic acid can increase the amount of brown fat tissue. This compound is found in apples, specifically apple peels, dried fruits, and a herb called Holy basil. Although more research should be conducted, we may suggest that ursolic acid may have the same positive effect on brown adipose tissue in humans.
A comprehensive 2019 review published in Frontiers in Physiology investigated how certain foods and spices can impact thermogenesis, the warming process responsible for activating brown fat. Animal tests suggested that turmeric, curcumin spice, resveratrol-containing items (i.e., wine), green tea, and spicy capsaicin may stimulate BAT or induce white fat browning. However, further research is required to determine their potency in humans since needed doses might be excessively high.
Another hypothesis connects brown fat with iron-rich foods, as BAT is also rich in that nutrient. It is logical to suggest that you have to have a good amount of iron in your diet if you want to build up the cells which include a lot of this chemical in them. According to Chinese scientists, iron deficiency affects the production of beige fat and the direction of the differentiation of brown fat.
Recent studies indicate that flavonoid supplements may induce the browning of white adipose tissue. Flavonoids are a prominent group of plant and fungi-derived metabolites.
They are also known to increase energy consumption, prevent obesity as well as improve metabolic status. However, the studies were conducted on mice, and more research should be conducted on people.
Since the discovery of brown fat in human adults and its benefits for metabolical health, many researchers tried to find ‘artificial’ ways to build up and activate the tissue as a way to treat obesity and insulin resistance. Currently, there are no solid studies that prove the effectiveness of any drugs on brown fat but some steps were made in that direction.
For example, the scientific community was recently intrigued by a study published in 2019 that suggested synthetic thyroid hormones – thyroxine and triiodothyronine may have the potential to activate brown fat and thermogenesis, as observed with mice. However, human trials are necessary to test this promising hypothesis.
Another small 2020 study showed that a drug called mirabegron could increase brown fat activity in healthy women. After recruiting 14 women, aged 18-40 and of diverse ethnicities to take double the FDA-approved dose of mirabegron for four weeks, researchers uncovered a 6% increase in metabolic rate. This was determined through PET/CT scanning before treatment and after completion which also revealed increased brown fat activity with greater effects seen in those initially with lower amounts.
An interesting fact about brown fat
Studies in mice show that old animals don’t make brown fat as well as young ones. And getting older is connected with a decrease in brown fat amounts. So it’s better to practice cold exposure from middle age to reduce the effects of ageing. Although, it’s never too late to start!
Let’s sum up
Brown fat is an important tissue that can bring numerous benefits to metabolical health. It can be increased through regular cold exposure that includes shivering. People can also induce the ‘browning’ of white fat into beige adipose tissue which carries some of the brown fat characteristics. This can potentially be done by changes in diet, exercise, and medication. However, exploring BAT efficacy still requires more investigation. Much of what we know so far has been inverted from animal studies; experts must continue research into ways that safely activate this unique type of adipose tissue in human subjects.
Hungry for knowledge? Here is more
If you want to learn more about brown fat and its connection to longevity-increasing genes, watch this fragment of the interview with Dr. David Sinclair. He is a prominent Australian biologist and geneticist who is known for his research in the field of ageing and longevity. He is currently a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging Research at Harvard.
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