The Meal Matters Most

What Makes Healthy Food Healthy: From a Stress Perspective

Brown Fat Vs White Fat?

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Stephan Guyenet of “Whole Health Source” recently posted, “Brown Fat: It’s a Big Deal“.  And it got me thinking and really liking this post but also ever so slightly disagreeing with his conclusion. It’s a well written article and discusses some very interesting research on cold-stress induced thermogenesis. Basically, if we expose ourselves to very mild cold stress from time-to-time we stress our systems enough to signal some fat burning, I’m all for it.  It’s a good perspective in a world that  thinks it needs to avoid stress, instead of deriving benefits from it.  However, something also to consider is that we are in a very stressed-out world.

The unfortunate problem in a stressed out world is that many people have less tolerance to temperature.  This can co-occur with disorders like Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Chronic Fatigue, which are the increasing noncommunicable disorders right along with obesity and other metabolic travesties.   There’s also the issue that for variations in the population stress will make one person go up but another go down. So the cold-stress may have feedback or rebound effects increasing weight, energy-saving mechanisms or fat storage. It boils down to when is stress too much and for who, when, and how can we use it and be sure we are recovering properly from it?

That’s a big question and another post. So here Stephan ponders the question whether central heating could be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

I would say sure it’s possible, but most likely just another factor to lump into the pile of causes to obesity. I have 12 causes in my “Obesity Reconceptualized” article which are all stress and logic related.  Central heating could be a possible contender when we take a singular approach to ecosystems problems. Taking out a single problem or inconvenience can solve one problem only to cause others.

What happens when we start discussing things in terms of stress is we start to use nonlinear logic. And in nonlinear logic many influences contribute to the same outcome, so you cannot assume there is a cause equal to outcome. So we can’t come to the conclusions that just because cold may hit a switch that may influence a solution we want (brown fat conversion and weightloss), it doesn’t therefore mean that the lack of cold is what caused the weight gain. Stress, and those things in the body that regulate and are regulated by stress, have MANY combination of influences. For example here, social stress or a combination of social and nutritional stress (or enriched environments and daylight) can re-regulate our temperature preferences or tolerances.  Genes and epigenetics are going to play a part as they always do in stress-related gene-environment mechanisms.   We need to widen our view and change our logical suppositions. Any stress can do this. We might be able to use cold and exercise, but that doesn’t mean their absence caused it.


The easiest way to think of the difference between brown fat and white fat (NIH) is that white fat is storage and brown fat is getting ready to be burned (we can toggle and convert between the two in “happy” environments, aka less stressful). In medical terms brown fat has more mitochondria within it. Mitochondria, if you remember from 8th grade are the “energy powerhouses”, in reality they play a much more complex and intimate role in energy balances, regulation and dysfunctioning (Hernández-Aguilera 2013). They are information and communication hubs.  Brown fat is considered to have more of these mitochondria “powerhouse” guys surrounding it, so brown might thought of as more capable to mobilize energy (fat) because of the vicinity of these powerhouses. In the case of cold temperatures this form of brown fat creates heat for us.

So whenever I read research like this i kinda laugh. We have become, as “western science” has the reputation for, being the “find the one quick solution” wonders from research (Gina Kolata on the topic of exercise, cold and brown fat). So here we have a complex mechanism of the body and everyone’s trying to reduce it to a quick fix.  “Hey, cold temperatures stimulate the conversion of white to brown fat, so if we make everyone cold, everyone should lose weight.”  Which is why western medicine are finding answers when they don’t even know the questions.  If you make everyone cold you create stress, the body responds to stress by mobilizing energy, we lose weight, we have a solution…. but guess what? Everything like that has a trade-off. Want to lose weight through brown fat? You could get a debilitating and life-ending disease.  The excessive brown fat activation is what happens in a heart disease called “cardiac cachexia” (via Dr. Sharma’s blog) and everyone thinks its cool because we have a switch we might be able to flick to burn fat.  Again, that could be a little silly. That switch we’re looking for is called a healthy diet and living in balance with our environment so our energy storage doesn’t get dysregulated. The body has very complex balances and environment-sensing hubs like these, you can play with switches, but there are going to be balances and compensations to pay for.

Its grand to figure these switches out, I love research like this and information is always great.  But for every “exercise, get cold, find a pill” idea for weightloss (metabolic improvement), you have to ask the question “But how and why did that energy get misregulated in the first place?” The answer is typically a mechanism of unmanaged stress.

see my article “The cause of obesity Reconceptualized: It’s not all about calories” 

So this infernal rat-race to find hormones and chemicals or cold showers to flip switches is about as silly as giving 8 different people a string to a marionette and telling them each to yank on one. Wohoo we get the doll to move. Of COURSE yanking on a string gets her to move.  Yanking gives us a very distinct motion we can measure.  And we can even prove it will give us that movement from that string every single time as a matter of scientific certainty. Which is western science. Repeatability. We can prove it a THOUSAND times, with a thousand studies. Wohoo we can prove what a yank does. So what? Just because you get a doll to MOVE doesn’t mean you’ve gotten her to DANCE.  We may not be able to isolate and prove the dance, but we can find the patterns of movements that become the dance. Just as much a science  (at some point we decided linearity was superior and repeatability was more core than predictability, true science at its core, is predictability, which can found with repeatable facts put together with flexibility and nonlinearity).  I can also predict that if you yank a string you will throw off the dance. Predictability again. And that pattern of dance from an ecosystem of balances within ourselves and our environment and multiple strings is what we are trying to accomplish, not yanks and isolated facts, but a complicated and intricate dance of balances .

The research is still helpful in that it gives us hints of mechanisms, drugs, plants, exercise, and environmental enrichment techniques we might put together to assist in the re-regulation and better communication patterns for these systems that have been altered. But that of course takes a large-view worldview perspective of stress dynamics.  All of these western linear medical solutions and answers aren’t making it to the pertinent questions, because they don’t use nonlinearity and they dismiss stress as trivial or too complicated.  If stress is messing us up, we need the patience and humble ability to re-evaluate what we dismiss and taking the time to understand the dynamics and the science this will entail to answers.  Not just short-term overly-direct answers, but a full-scale view of where and why we are going so wrong.

Will taking a cold shower or turning off the heat help you burn off a few calories and maybe alter some regulation patterns? Maybe, maybe not. Solve obesity or cause it? Doubtful.  Be included in the solution? Absolutely!  Temperature (or lack of change) and exercise (or lack thereof) can  play a part in stress and obesity, but they are not in themselves a cause or solution. Central heat is yet another string on our marionette, an isolated pieces of knowledge that we are uncovering that needs to be put in a larger context to find the truth of its player role and potential use.

Some more Brown Fat References, further reading and D4Y:

  • The Nervous System and Adipose Tissue. By Katharine Dalziel, MD, MBBS, MRCP. Reprinted from Clinics in Dermatology. October-December 1989, Volume 7, Number 4, pages 62-77. LINK
  • Chronic social defeat stress disrupts regulation of lipid synthesis.  Jen-Chieh Chuang, Huxing Cui, Brittany L. Mason, Melissa Mahgoub, Angie L. Bookout, Hana G. Yu,† Mario Perello, Joel K. Elmquist, Joyce J. Repa, Jeffrey M. Zigman, and Michael Lutter. J Lipid Res. 2010 June; 51(6): 1344–1353. doi: 10.1194/jlr.M002196PMCID: PMC3035497 LINK
  • A high-fat, ketogenic diet induces a unique metabolic state in mice.  LINK
  • Collins S, & Bordicchia M (2013). Heart hormones fueling a fire in fat. Adipocyte, 2 (2), 104-8 PMID: 23805407. LINK (via Dr. Sharma)
  • From white to brown fat through the PGC-1α-dependent myokine irisin: implications for diabetes and obesity. Jorge Iván Castillo-Quan. Dis Model Mech. 2012 May; 5(3): 293–295. doi: 10.1242/dmm.009894 LINK
  • Effect of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis on thermogenesis and thermoregulation in the cold-exposed Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus). YANG Ming, LI Qin-Fen, HUANG Chen-xi. Current Zoology(formerly Acta Zoologica Sinica), Oct. 2003, 49(5): 571 – 577. LINK
  • Brown adipose tissue redox status in response to dietary-induced obesity-associated oxidative stress in male and female rats. Nadal-Casellas A, Proenza AM, Gianotti M, Llad I. Stress. 2011 Mar;14(2):174-84. doi: 10.3109/10253890.2010.524681. Epub 2010 Oct 31. LINK
  • (An interesting hypothesis and clinical study in the works): Effect of Temperature on Pain and Brown Adipose Activity in Fibromyalgia:
  • A hypercaloric load induces thermogenesis but inhibits stress responses in the SNS and HPA system. Strack AM, Akana SF, Horsley CJ, Dallman MF. Am J Physiol. 1997 Mar;272(3 Pt 2):R840-8. LINK
  • Strain differences in hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical axis function and adipogenic effects of corticosterone in rats. Marissal-Arvy N, Gaumont A, Langlois A, Dabertrand F, Bouchecareilh M, Tridon C, Mormede P. J Endocrinol. 2007 Dec;195(3):473-84. LINK
  • Genetic differences in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity and food restriction-induced hyperactivity in three inbred strains of rats. Duclos M, Bouchet M, Vettier A, Richard D. J Neuroendocrinol. 2005 Nov;17(11):740-52.  LINK

Author: Lori Hogenkamp

Lori's passion is for food, the brain, science and stress shifting perspectives .

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