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Brown adipose tissue: This is how you activate it



  • How is brown fatty tissue created and what is its function?
  • Why is it actually called “brown” fatty tissue?
  • How does brown fat affect health?
  • Is brown fat associated with a healthier lifestyle?
  • Can white fat be converted into brown fat?
  • Which foods activate brown fat?
  • Why does brown fat decrease with age?
  • How could we build brown fat without regularly freezing?

When you hear the word “fatty tissue,” you probably associate it with negative feelings: an unhealthy eating style and the fear of getting sick because you weigh too many kilos. That is understandable. Quite a few illnesses arise due to excess weight. But not all fatty tissue is equally harmful. In addition to the well-known white adipose tissue, there is also brown adipose tissue, which can even help burn excess calories.

We have Professor Tim J. Schulz, Head of the Fat Cell Development and Nutrition Department at the German Institute for Nutritional Research in Potsdam-Rehbrücke, to find out how this works, how you can increase the proportion of your brown fat tissue and what else you should know about brown fat tissue asked.

How is brown fatty tissue created and what is its function?

“Brown fatty tissue develops during the development of the embryo,” explains Professor Schulz. It is particularly useful for newborns because it enables heat to be generated through energy consumption. And this is necessary for survival because babies do not yet have enough muscles to produce heat by shaking, for example; they rely on the ability of brown fat cells to convert food into heat energy.

Professor Schulz: “The ratio of surface area to volume is less favorable in newborns than in adults, i.e. they lose heat more easily and then have to counteract it with brown fat in order not to cool down. That’s why they need more brown fat than adults.” The proportion of brown fatty tissue is much lower in adults and, according to studies, occurs almost only in the back, neck or collarbone areas.

Why is it actually called “brown” fatty tissue?

Fat pockets made up of white fat cells do not turn brown like human skin does when you lie in the sun. The opposite, a cold supply, is responsible for this: “If there is a prolonged cold stimulus, the so-called ‘browning’ or browning leads to a transformation into brown-like fat cells. The cells then change their appearance significantly. They no longer have a “It’s not just a large fat droplet, but many small ones. This makes it easier to access the fats as an energy source so that they can be metabolized more quickly,” explains Professor Schulz.

If you look at the brown fat cells under the microscope, you can see many dark-appearing mitochondria. “These are the structures in the cell that metabolize fats and other nutrients and convert them into heat in brown fat cells,” says Professor Schulz. Mitochondria are found in almost all cells in the human body to produce energy.

How does brown fat affect health?

It would be practical if your own fat tissue helped you stay healthy and you could ensure that it increases yourself. But what exactly are the connections between brown fat and diseases? This has been investigated in studies and, according to Professor Schulz, it is known that some diseases are linked to a low proportion of brown adipose tissue. “This applies especially to diseases that are grouped under the metabolic syndrome, i.e. insulin resistance and lipid metabolism disorders, which can ultimately lead to diabetes.”

Insulin fulfills an important task in the body. It ensures that blood sugar levels fall after meals and that the sugar consumed can be metabolized. It is therefore important that you can produce enough insulin and that your body is sufficiently “sensitive” to the insulin. Metabolic syndrome is a disease consisting of obesity with additional problems such as disorders in the metabolism of fat cells and increased blood sugar levels or high blood pressure.

According to Schulz, people with diabetes or overweight have less brown fat. “In this respect, one could draw the conclusion that brown fat has a protective function and helps prevent such diseases from occurring,” explains the fat cell expert.

Is brown fat associated with a healthier lifestyle?

So does it mean that I’m healthier if I have more brown fat and sicker if I don’t? “In general, exercise supports the formation of brown fat cells. In many studies, people who are overweight also have less brown fat,” explains Professor Schulz, “But you have to be careful here, because it is unclear whether the little brown fat is a cause “I’m overweight, or I’m just losing weight as a result of it. So it’s difficult to answer whether your lifestyle is really damaging brown fat.”

Can white fat be converted into brown fat?

To increase the amount of brown fat in the body, it would be most practical if white fat could be converted into brown fat. One possibility for this is cold. This is because cold can cause brown fat cells to become activated and there is evidence that a cold environment increases the amount of brown fat cells.

“We used to use the Finnish lumberjacks as an example,” reports Professor Schulz. “There are older studies that show that this group of people has more active brown fat in winter than in summer.”

It would therefore be conceivable to influence the transformation through cold showers or ice baths. But how long and how often would you have to stand in the cold shower while shivering? “I think you would have to take a cold shower for quite a long time, because the brown fat is only activated as long as the cold stimulus lasts,” says Professor Schulz. “Only when cold occurs repeatedly or lasts longer do we start converting it from white to brown fat cells, and more brown fat cells are created.”

In winter, however, it is much more difficult to overcome the cold and long showers. But there are other ways you can lure brown fat cells out of reserve. To do this, however, you would have to leave the comfortable couch: “What is more interesting is the observation that you can stimulate the formation of brown fat cells through exercise. There are even studies that suggest that some of the positive metabolic effects of exercise are mediated through this process. Also The following applies here: You have to do sport long-term to see an effect,” says the expert.

So exercise could not only burn fat, but also stimulate the production of brown fat cells. In a study at the University of Vienna, researchers found that people with brown adipose tissue exposed to cold had a 15% increase in energy expenditure. This means we can actually burn a few more calories.

Which foods activate brown fat?

Turmeric, green tea or coffee are being discussed. Regarding the latter, researchers found in a study at the University of Nottingham that coffee stimulates the temperature in the collarbone area, the exact area where brown fat cells occur, and could therefore influence thermoregulation. However, further studies are necessary here.

Why does brown fat decrease with age?

As we get older, not only our skin suffers, but also our fatty tissue. One or two pockets of fat persist, while brown fatty tissue decreases. Why this is so is not yet entirely clear. Professor Schulz explains: “On the one hand, the hormonal situation changes with increasing age, in such a way that fewer brown fat cells are formed and activated. This primarily has a negative effect on the metabolic performance of the finished brown fat cells, and they are then less efficient in producing heat. In addition, we probably have a negative effect of age on the stem cells that are responsible for the formation of new brown fat.”

Stem cells are cells from which our entire body ultimately develops. But as we get older, these tend to work against us. “These cells also age and then form white fat cells rather than brown fat cells. In general, all cells in the body are gradually replaced by new cells. This is a completely normal repair mechanism, even in brown fat tissue. This does not work in old age “More so good, and then bad white fat cells are created rather than good brown fat cells,” says the expert.

How could we build brown fat without regularly freezing?

“On the one hand, there is the idea of ​​stimulating the formation of more brown fat cells by increasing stem cells. This already works excellently in cell culture, for example. Now we have to find ways to make this work in the living organism too,” says Professor Schulz.

However, another problem would be activating these brown fat cells so that heat is produced. A stimulus is necessary for this. If that’s missing, even large amounts of brown fat won’t do much good.

The second approach that could also solve this problem is to convert the white fat cells into brown fat cells. “This actually requires a cold stimulus,” explains Schulz, “but since long-term cold is rather unpleasant for most people, the best thing to do is to use an active ingredient that takes over this function without us having to freeze. There are also… “There are some research approaches that test this and are working on such cold mimetics.”

This refers to substances that trigger signals in the body similar to cold. This would have the nice and practical effect that we don’t have to be cold all the time and our brown fat cells are still irritated. In the future, it is hoped that this will be another tool in the fight against obesity, cardiovascular and metabolic disorders.

Brown adipose tissue can increase your total energy expenditure and protect you from the metabolic symptom. Science has not yet found a way to activate brown fat tissue in humans on a large scale. Until then, you’ll be fine regular exercise sessions and cold showers to break down white fat cells and increase brown fat cells.


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