Shiver Your Way Skinny
There's a new trend in weight loss and it's all about the cold. People are putting on vests with ice packs in them, trying to lower their body temperature. They keep them on for hours at a time, shivering, in an attempt to drop weight. Advocates wear them to bed and fall asleep in these chill suits.
Like most crazy weight-loss schemes, this one started with a legitimate scientific discovery. That was when medical researchers found something called "brown fat" in adults. The results of three studies were published in the April 9, 2009 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers showed that brown fat is not only present in adults, it may actually be common. Here's why that was such a shocker.
Brown fat is packed with mitochondria. That's the energy-generating units in cells. Instead of storing energy, brown fat burns it. Fill a body with brown fat and it would become a calorie-burning dynamo. But, most medical professionals thought brown fat was only found in babies. Newborns use it to keep warm because they cannot shiver. As we grow up, it was thought the brown fat disappeared.
Now researchers realize, we weren't looking for it under the proper conditions. Brown fat is activated by the cold. In one study, volunteers were kept in cold rooms while their feet were submerged in ice water footbaths. Then they were given a PET/CT scan and biopsies. Sure enough, the cold activated the brown fat and researchers found it.
The surprise wasn't just that adults had brown fat, but researchers also realized that the younger, leaner subjects had more than their overweight counterparts. It seems that the more brown fat an adult had, the less body fat they carried around. Brown fat burns calories and helps lean people keep the weight off. But there's more.
In a 2011 study, researchers found that brown fat draws sugar molecules from the blood of mice, lowering their risk of type 2 diabetes. It's fueled by fatty triglyceride molecules, exactly the type that we want to get rid of. So the trick is, what can we do to get more brown fat and/or activate the little we have?
Enter the shiver vests. Since cold activates brown fat, companies have decided to start selling gear that will lower your body temperature and get you "freezing for fat loss." It's a clever idea, but there are problems.
It's uncomfortable. Who wants to sit around shivering for hours on end? Then there are the problems of timing and degrees. There are no clinical trials to tell us how long we need to reduce our temperature for brown fat activation, or exactly how cold we should be. Is 30 minutes enough? Four hours? All night? Plus there's the issue of tissue damage. Keep a cold pack on your skin for too long and you risk frostbite.
Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, a professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands is working on a solution. He believes that we can use MILD cold to produce "non-shivering thermogenesis." We don't have to be uncomfortable, just a little cooler than we're used to for that calorie burning and metabolic boosting brown fat rush. Of course, for now, it's just a theory.
Cold isn't the only solution. Researchers are looking into alternate methods of brown fat activation. A hormone called irisin seems to change the behavior of regular white fat to act more like brown fat. Other brown fat stimulators include a molecule that promotes the growth of neurons called neurotrophic factor, and the protein SIRT1 that's also believed to help the body handle stress. Even the simple act of exercising can make brown fat more active.
But for now, it's all experimental. Nothing has been clinically shown to work safely in humans, long term and without side effects.
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