We all know that exercise is good for us, but few of us take the time to understand all the ways it benefits our bodies, especially to burn fat. In fact, scientists are even now diligently working in their laboratories to determine what changes exercise creates within the body to learn more about how we can be healthier. And now, new research is focusing on a particular hormone that our muscles secrete when we exercise that boosts our energy-burning power.
A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston has been working together to study brown fat in the body.1 Brown fat is body fat that burns energy, as opposed to the more typical white fat, which just stores the calories we have consumed. The hormone that the scientists encountered appears to alter white fat, making it behave similarly to brown fat and increase the amount of energy we burn.
The study used obese mice, with signs of pre-diabetes, who were then stimulated to produce more of the hormone in their bodies. When the levels rose, the mice lost weight, had higher energy output, and proved to be more insulin resistant than before. As the muscles produce this hormone through exercise, the effects begin to take place, spotlighting a key way that exercise works to help us shed excess weight and lower our risk for diseases like diabetes.
Brown fat was originally believed to exist in abundance in babies and gradually disappear within our bodies as we get older. But now there is proof that some deposits of brown fat exist even in adults. The researchers are continuing their study of brown fat to determine just how the hormone in question affects it and causes this surge in energy expenditure.
However, one of the lead researchers is also co-founder of a Boston company called Ember Therapeutics, which has licensed the technology to create a synthetic form of this hormone to turn into…what else, but a prescription drug. You've got to love the way everything has to be turned into a pharmaceutical product these days. Instead of trying to figure out a way to stimulate our stores of brown fat naturally and increase our levels of this energy-burning hormone, business in America wants to immediately turn it into a drug we can pay for, whatever the cost in side effects, so that people wouldn't actually have to exercise to reap the benefits. And sadly, we all know that doctors would jump right on board, as would a good proportion of magic bullet seeking dieters.
Of course, brown fat is not a new topic for everyone in the health field. Jon Barron first wrote about what brown fat is and how it works more than 25 years ago. In a more recent newsletter, written just last November, he explained the mechanism of Brown Fat Thermogenesis as a metabolic function in which regulator cells (brown fat cells) burn white fat cells to produce heat. Each brown fat cell can burn as much as 20 times its own weight in stored white fat. But since brown fat is derived from muscle,2 ultra-low calorie diets without exercise will cause you to lose both muscle and brown fat tissue. That's why there's just no getting around the simple fact that you can't be healthy without regular exercise.
Even if the pharmaceutical companies have hundreds of labfuls of scientists working on a pill that can recreate the effects of the hormone secreted by brown fat, it will never build muscle or increase your percentage of brown fat. In addition, the fact that it is man-made will most likely mean that it is structurally different than the natural hormone, which guarantees some kind of side effect. But even that begs the question of how it will work as we age and our muscle mass gradually decreases without regular exercise? The medical establishment would probably answer, by taking a higher dosage, of course.
A better option by far would be to stay far away from the synthetic hormones when this pill is created, no matter how tempting the million dollar advertising will be, and exercise daily to work that brown fat of yours naturally. And one other option is to keep your thermostat turned down this winter. The function of brown fat is to burn white fat to generate heat to keep you warm. If you keep the thermostat on high, your brown fat never activates.3 Keep your thermostat set lower and you not only lose weight, but you save money on your utility bills too.
1 Johnson, Carolyn Y. "Dana-Farber scientists discover hormone that triggers fat to burn energy." Boston.com. 11 January 2012. Accessed 14 February 2012. <http://www.boston.com/Boston/whitecoatnotes/2012/01/dana-farber-scientists-discover-hormone-that-triggers-fat-burn-energy/RdTIxJZ7YtqTx7fV5PWh7L/index.html>.
2 Patrick Seale, Bryan Bjork, Wenli Yang, Shingo Kajimura1, Sherry Chin1, Bruce M. Spiegelman, et al. "PRDM16 controls a brown fat/skeletal muscle switch." Nature 454, 961-967 (21 August 2008). <http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v454/n7207/full/nature07182.html>
3 Wouter D. van Marken Lichtenbelt, Joost W. Vanhommerig, Nanda M. Smulders, et al. "Cold-Activated Brown Adipose Tissue in Healthy Men." N Engl J Med 2009; 360:1500-1508April 9, 2009. <http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0808718#t=articleTop>