The Health Benefits of Brown Fat and How to Activate It
Despite common beliefs, not all of the fat in our bodies is bad. There are different types of fat tissue classified by colors; brown fat is the so-called “healthier” fat. While it was once thought that only infants had brown fat, it’s now known that this special type of fat is present in adults and can be activated in several ways.
In this article, we’ll learn the basics of the different colors of fat tissue, the health benefits of brown fat, and how to increase its activation.
Brown Fat, White Fat, and Beige Fat
Brown fat, also known as brown adipose tissue (BAT), contains energy-producing mitochondria, which provides it with its copper-brown color. Brown fat cells are made up of many smaller droplets; the mitochondria can burn up some of the droplets to create heat.
This is why babies are born with brown fat: They can't maintain their own body temperatures through shivering. These heat-producing pockets of brown fat help to keep infants stay warm. In adults, brown fat is linked to reductions in obesity and inflammatory disorders because the thermogenic process burns calories.
Whereas brown fat is healthy, white fat is the unhealthy type. Also known as white adipose tissue (WAT), this type of fat is not metabolically active and contributes to inflammation and obesity-related diseases. White fat cells store their energy in one large droplet, leading to body fat accumulation.
There is also a third, more recently discovered type of fat, called beige fat. Also referred to as “brown-like,” “brown-in-white,” or “brite” adipocytes, these types of fat cells arise when white fat cells develop the thermogenic effects of brown fat cells. This transformation of white fat into brown fat shows a lot of potential to target metabolic-related health conditions, as discussed in a September 2013 review in Nature Medicine.
Health Benefits of Brown Fat
1. Increases Fat Burning
The thermogenic properties of brown fat increase energy expenditure, which may reduce the risk or prevalence of obesity. The metabolically active aspects of brown fat are mediated through a unique mitochondrial protein called uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1), which causes the mitochondria to "uncouple" the respiratory chain, leading to the production of heat rather than ATP.
Using full-body scans, researchers can analyze the amounts of brown versus white fat people have. In a 2009 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, greater quantities of BAT were significantly associated with lower body mass index (BMI), especially in older adults. In this study, females had more BAT than males.
While the actual amount of calorie-burning provided by brown adipose tissue could vary from person to person, a 2017 review published in Current Obesity Reports estimates that fully stimulated BAT could lead to an additional 100 calories per day of energy expended. This amount would make brown fat activation more viable for weight maintenance than weight loss. However, other researchers have speculated that increasing brown fat could upregulate energy expenditure by up to 20%.
2. Improves Glucose Metabolism
The metabolic effects of brown fat can target glucose metabolism. In a study published in Diabetes Technology & Therapeutics, individuals with less BAT were more likely to have resistance to the hormone that clears glucose from the blood.
One of the most well-known ways to increase or activate brown fat is through cold exposure. In a study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in November 2017, exposing healthy men to moderately cold temperatures led to increased BAT activity and improved glucose uptake by 20%.
3. Increases Satiety
Another mechanism by which brown fat may help keep weight in check is through its potential to increase satiety. BAT induces post-meal thermogenesis, which is linked to feelings of fullness. This process is mediated by the gut hormone secretin, which activates BAT after meals. As discussed in a 2018 paper in Cell, food consumption induces the release of secretin, activating post-meal thermogenesis and relaying satiety signals to the brain.
4. Reduces Inflammation
In general, WAT is inflammatory. Obese individuals, who have excess amounts of white fat, remain in a low-grade chronic inflammatory state because their white fat cells become dysfunctional. Just as white adipose tissue can transform to beige or brown adipose tissue, brown fat can also switch into white fat, a process known as “BAT whitening.”
In a study published in the Journal of Lipid Research, mice whose adipose tissue underwent BAT whitening experienced a strong inflammatory response and upregulation of inflammatory cytokines. These whitened fat tissues were also extremely prone to cell death, which can further promote inflammation. The activation of brown fat may be a beneficial method for quelling systemic inflammation in the body.
How to Activate Brown Fat
1. Cold Exposure
As mentioned above, exposure to cold temperatures or water can increase brown adipose tissue or promote the transformation from white to brown fat. This is due to brown fat’s thermogenic effects — cold temperatures activate the adipose tissue to burn energy.
Cold exposure can be performed by turning down the thermostat or taking cold showers; the temperature range most often studied is 64-66 degrees Fahrenheit. Although the most benefit is seen with two hours of cold exposure per day, even shorter amounts can be beneficial.
2. Polyphenolic Plant Compounds
The compounds resveratrol, berberine, curcumin, cinnamon, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) from green tea, and capsaicin (found in chili peppers) have all been shown to activate or increase brown fat. In addition, omega-3 fatty acids have also been linked to brown fat activation.
3. Moderate Exercise
Physical activity stimulates the production of irisin, a hormone that improves metabolism and is secreted from the muscles in response to exercise. After exercise, irisin then stimulates thermogenesis and the switching of white fat to beige or brown fat. However, you can have too much of a good thing. Over-exercising may have detrimental effects on brown fat activity, especially in females. Therefore, moderate exercise is the key to turning on brown fat.
Another factor that may play a role in brown fat activity is NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide), a precursor to the coenzyme NAD+. Research has found that adequate levels of NAD+ in adipose tissue are necessary for thermogenesis. For example, administering NMN to mice with low levels of NAD+ led to restored thermogenesis and brown fat activity. Quality NMN products are available in powder, lozenges, sustained-release, and capsule forms.
- Brown adipose tissue is a healthier type of body fat that burns energy, increases energy expenditure, and improves glucose metabolism.
- Brown fat activity is also linked to increased satiety after meals and reduced inflammation.
- Increase brown fat activation through cold exposure, various plant compounds, moderate exercise, and supplemental NMN.
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