Over 1.6 billion adults worldwide are overweight with 400 million of them being obese. The obesity epidemic has only risen and poses major risks for diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. If there was a time to treat obesity immediately, it is NOW. Seminal research has showed exposure to cold environments may serve as a therapeutic potential in combatting obesity by burning calories in a process called “Non-Shivering Thermogenesis”.
Why is it so easy to gain weight?
Our bodies are constantly balancing between energy intake and energy expenditure. Energy intake consists of the food we consume while energy expenditure includes exercise, our basal metabolic rate such as the energy our cells use, and a key concept called non-shivering thermogenesis. Energy expenditure is linked to metabolism. In order to maintain body weight, our energy input must equal energy output. When our energy intake is more than our energy output, our body begins accumulating more and more white adipose tissue (WAT) that leads to weight gain overtime. WAT stores energy from our food in large fat globules that reside around the hips and thighs.
Unlike WAT that stores energy, brown adipose tissue (BAT) expends energy and while doing so, produces heat in a process called thermogenesis. BAT thermogenesis activity is increased by 20% in cold environments in an adaptive response to generate heat. When it generates heat, it uses the energy stored our bodies to burn calories, giving it a therapeutic potential for obesity. The term “non-shivering thermogenesis” arises simply because when we are cold, our body responds in two main ways; by shivering coordinated via muscle movement to stay warm and by BAT thermogenesis – a form of non-shivering that generates heat.
How can we generate more BAT?
One study has reported even two hours of exposure to cold environments can “turn” WAT into BAT. This is why you might have heard that a cold shower or an ice bath can be beneficial, not only for your fat cells but also for your skeletal muscle if you’re an athlete.
Our bodies produce a protein called irisin, which can aid in the transition of WAT into BAT. Another study suggests, exercise can increase the production of irisin, helping to tackle obesity through a double whammy effect!
BAT thermogenesis in the cold as a therapy for obesity
Since we now have concrete evidence that BAT thermogenesis burns calories, can’t we just generate more BAT in obese populations then expose them to cold environments and overcome obesity? The answer to this is not so simple. Although BAT thermogenesis can burn calories, there is only so much that can be burned even in the coldest environment. This is linked to limited BAT reserves and the amount of WAT an individual possesses. This means, we cannot solely rely on this technique to overcome obesity. In order to rid the obesity epidemic, these populations of obese individuals must adopt a conglomerate of mindset, exercise and diet.