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Brown Fat: Its Role In Insulin, Metabolism, and How to Activate It

An image of a woman pinching her belly fatBody fat is an important part of your body composition and is vital for optimal body functioning. Unfortunately, many individuals overlook the important role of body fat and focus only on its negative qualities. Fat is not just something that makes you overweight. In your body, there are different types of fat. One of these types is brown fat. While you can't increase levels of this fat, it plays a role in metabolism and energy burning, so researchers are investigating whether it could help weight loss and be activated to our advantage.

The Different Types of Fat

White Fat

This type of fat mainly stores energy for calories and is the most abundant form of fat in the body.  It is able to do this as it has large droplets of fat in its structure. White fat is found either just under your skin (subcutaneous) or around your organs (visceral). If there is an excess of this type of fat, it can lead to excess weight and obesity. In excess, white fat can increase the risk of diabetes and heart conditions.

Brown Fat

Brown adipose fat (BAT) occurs in smaller amounts, and one of its main roles is to balance the temperature of your body. It is able to do this as it has more mitochondria than white fat. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell. They produce energy and are rich in the mineral iron, which gives this fat its color.

Brown fat is more abundant in babies and hibernating mammals than in adults. This could be because babies and hibernating mammals need it to keep warm more than adults. In adults, it occurs in smaller amounts in the neck, along your spine, and in between your shoulder blades. Research suggests you cannot increase the amount of brown fat that you have, but you may be able to activate it.

Beige Fat

This last type of fat occurs when white fat converts into brown fat and begins burning energy rather than storing it. You may not be able to increase the amount of brown fat within your body, but you are able to increase the levels of beige fat through exercise, social interaction, exposure to cold, diet, and a few other factors. When these factors go away, however, it can convert back to white fat. Beige fat is genetically different from brown fat; however, it does have extra mitochondria and some of the same benefits.

Benefits of Brown Fat

Metabolism

When the brown fat cells are activated, they activate the mitochondria to burn energy and produce heat. This can help to improve insulin sensitivity and appetite regulation. It's believed that when the mitochondria are activated, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are absorbed into the body.

BCAAs are forms of protein that are essential to your body. But while they are important to your health, in excess they can lead to weight gain and mood changes. Research suggests that individuals with obesity, insulin resistance, and type two diabetes have a high level of BCAAs. A lower level of BCAAs could improve these conditions.

Research in a small group found participants had a lower BCAA level when the brown fat cells were activated after two hours of exposure to the cold. This is promising in reducing obesity, insulin resistance, and type two diabetes due to the activation of these cells.

Relieving Diabetes with Brown Fat

An image of white clusters flowing with red blood cellsThere is a protein that only occurs in brown fat that can help to lower blood sugar levels, increase insulin sensitivity, and protect the body from a fatty liver. This suggests that it could potentially protect individuals against diabetes. This protein helps make the brown fat metabolically active, meaning that it burns glucose for fuel.

Studies suggest a link between brown fat and diabetes, with studies also suggesting that a higher level of brown fat co-occurs with an increased risk for developing diabetes. This is because, in individuals who are at risk for developing diabetes, the sugar levels are higher and the body tries to regulate the sugar levels by increasing the amount of brown fat to help burn the excess glucose. However, more research is necessary.

Reducing Heart Conditions

Research has found that individuals with a higher level of brown fat have lower cholesterol levels. A high level of cholesterol can increase your risk of developing heart conditions. This means higher levels of brown fat may help reduce the risk of developing heart conditions associated with high cholesterol.

Activating Brown Fat and Beige Fat: Nutrition

Brown fat is primarily activated through cold temperatures, and this applies to external and internal temperatures. Standing in the cold is likely the ideal way to activate this fat.

However certain foods can increase the temperature of your body. This then activates the mitochondria within the brown fat cells and increases the amount of energy the body burns. By helping the body convert white fat cells into beige fat cells, some foods could also have this effect. This may increase the metabolic rate and could lead to weight loss. Do note that most of the research showing this activation benefit occurs in small mammals, and these benefits have not been replicated in humans.

Ursolic Acid

Studies suggest that ursolic acid decreases the insulating effects of the white fat cells and increases the activation of brown fat cells. Foods that contain ursolic acid include:

  • Apples with the peel
  • Grapes with the skin
  • Cranberries
  • Thyme
  • Oregano

Cocoa

Cocoa contains an alkaloid, theobromine, which gives cocoa its signature bitter taste. Theobromine helps to activate the protein within the brown fat cells which assists in the burning of white fat cells. Dark chocolate is a good source of cocoa and also contains the antioxidant resveratrol. Resveratrol assists in managing your blood sugar levels.

Fish Oils

The fish oils include omega 3 and are commonly found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna. Omega 3 has many important roles, but one role is that it works to activate the mitochondria within the brown and beige fat cells, increasing your metabolism. It also activated an enzyme that increases the activation of the brown fat cells.

MCT Oils

MCT stands for medium chain triglycerides, which consist of six to twelve lipids. Due to their length, they are used quickly. This reduces the chances of the MCTs being stored, and they also activate the brown fat. MCT oil is generally found in:

  • Coconut oil
  • Goat milk
  • Palm kernel oil

Iron

An image of iron-rich foodsIron gives the brown fat its color and is needed for these cells to function optimally. Anemia is a condition where there is a low amount of iron in the body. Research suggests that anemia can increase the risk of obesity as there are defects in the production of brown and beige fat cells. Increasing your consumption of foods rich in iron can help to ensure adequate levels of iron within the body and adequate production and activation of brown fat. Foods rich in iron include:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale
  • Tofu
  • Beans
  • Red meat

Spices

There are many spices that can help with the activation of brown fat and the burning of white fat. These spices contain different ingredients that give them this ability. Some of the spices and their active ingredients include:

  • Garlic - Allicin
  • Turmeric - Curcumin
  • Chili - Capsaicin
  • Cinnamon - Cinnamaldehyde

Supplements for Brown Fat Activation

These ingredients can be consumed through food sources but they can also be consumed through the use of supplements. Supplements are different from the food sources as they will contain the specific ingredient from the food source that assists in the activation of brown fat. This concentration can be higher than the concentration of the ingredient found in food sources; however, a supplement does not contain the additional nutrients that the food contains. For this reason, you should always opt for food sources first as they are a better-quality source of these ingredients.

Exercise

Exercise has many important health benefits but it also influences the different types of fat. It helps to encourage the formation of beige fat. There is also a relationship between the length of exercise, the distribution of body fat, and the amount of brown fat.

Research suggests that exercise activates the fat cells, and these cells release a chemical that helps to increase the rate of metabolism. This increase in metabolism can help with the management of weight.

Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is the use of low temperature through ice baths or a chamber that has a low temperature. Low temperatures activate the brown fat to regulate your body temperature. Whilst taking an ice bath or standing in a cold chamber may not sound ideal, research suggests that going for a brisk walk in winter can have a similar effect.

Brown Fat and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS)

Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) is a condition that occurs as a result of chronic stress. Your body has the ability to cope with stress through the adrenal glands and the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response system. Your adrenal glands release stress hormones as a result of stress and your NEM system supports your adrenal glands. However, your body is only designed to respond to short-term stress. With long-term stress, your adrenal glands can become depleted, and imbalances within the NEM occur. This results in AFS.

An image of the human body highlighting the liverThere are many different symptoms that can occur as a result of AFS and it depends on where the imbalance is. The Bioenergetics circuit is one of the six circuits of related organ systems that compose the NEM. The pancreas, thyroid, and liver make up this circuit.  If there is an imbalance within the circuit, it can cause the organs to function sub-optimally. The pancreas and thyroid play important roles in releasing hormones to manage your sugar levels, weight, and energy usage. Hormone imbalances due to AFS can affect these organs. This can result in sugar cravings, insulin resistance, and weight gain.

Activating brown fat could possibly help with this imbalance by reducing insulin resistance and increasing the metabolic rate. This could then help to manage your weight.

Cautions for AFS

Activating brown fat could potentially benefit individuals experiencing AFS symptoms around their weight. The activation of this fat can occur through exercise, different food ingredients, supplements, and the use of different temperatures. However, there are some cautions to be aware of.

In AFS, the body can become sensitive and react negatively to any new substances or conditions. It's also important to remember that the FDA does not regulate supplements, and this can result in poor quality ingredients. These factors can potentially set you back in your healing journey.

If you are considering using some of these practices to assist with your weight, consult with your healthcare professional before you implement these practices. Your healthcare provider will be able to help provide a plan that will support your body optimally throughout the healing journey.

Takeaway on Brown Fat

Brown fat generally burns energy to keep you warm, although it may have a relationship with insulin resistance and increasing metabolism. Research suggests that some measures may help activate brown fat or turn white fat into beige fat, which has similar benefits. However, more research is necessary to determine the relationship between this fat and its potential benefits.

For other holistic approaches to managing weight, call the Dr. Lam team at +1 (626) 571-1234 for a free initial consultation or click here.

© Copyright 2023 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Brown fat generally helps keep you warm, which is why babies and hibernating mammals have higher levels of it than adult humans. However, research has connected it to insulin resistance and metabolic rate too, so activating this type of fat, or converting white fat into a similar energy-burning variety, may help some of these issues.

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