Over the past few years, many startling scientific discoveries have changed the way that we look at – and care for – our own bodies. It seems like the more that we learn, the more we realize that we have no idea what is going on under our skin.
For example, fat has always been seen as the enemy. We work out and diet in hopes of destroying those amorphous, stubborn deposits that viciously cling to our bodies. As it turns out, though, that’s just one type of fat. The stuff that we war against that slows us down and does absolutely nothing – metabolically speaking – is called white fat. Surprisingly, there’s also something called brown fat which turns out to be pretty useful.
Brown fat is metabolically active, meaning that it burns calories. Specifically, brown fat acts like a furnace that absorbs sugar from the blood stream and burns it in order to maintain a proper core temperature. Unfortunately, human adults have very little in the way of brown fat – a pretty frustrating discovery, really.
Fueled by the sheer excitement of finding a type of fat that can effectively help you lose weight, though, the search has been on in full earnest for a way to increase our deposits of brown fat. One of the most promising studies comes to us from the National Institutes of Health by means of the June issue of Diabetes.
Considering brown fat’s link to body temperature, the study had a fairly logical design: The researchers found 5 healthy young men who were willing to sleep in a lab for 4 months. During that time, their diet would be controlled – as would the temperature of their bedrooms.
For the first month, the bedrooms were kept at 75 degrees Fahrenheit. This did nothing, which was the expected result. In the second month, however, the room temperature was dropped to 66 degrees. This is when things got exciting; Brown fat activity ramped up.
Most notably, the volume of brown fat in the subjects nearly doubled. Their insulin sensitivity also increased. While the subjects did burn a few more calories during the day, it just wasn’t enough to result in weight loss over the course of the four weeks.
Perhaps most interestingly, the subjects metabolisms and insulin responses returned to normal after the temperature in the room was cranked back up – first to 75 degrees, then to 81.
What It Means And Doesn’t Mean
First of all, this study suggests something incredible: That you can increase your levels of brown fat. Since we are just beginning to understand how this magical stuff works, this is a very important fact to know.
Of course, this study also shows us that these changes can be done and undone fairly quickly – over the course of just a month.
Now for the bad news, though. These findings do not mean that sleeping in a cold room is a magic bullet for weight loss. This is simply a preliminary study that used a very small sample size – only five men – and needs to be repeated on a larger scale with other groups before we can really put our confidence in it.
Remember, too, that the increases in caloric expenditure were not enough to cause noticeable weight loss over a month’s time, which means that they weren’t very large at all. The primary benefits from the increases in brown fat were related to insulin responses and blood sugar levels, not immediate weight loss. While regulating your insulin and glucose levels can be a big help in controlling your weight, many other factors are involved.
With all those cold, hard disclaimers out of the way it remains true that this study shows some real promise. Sleeping in a chilly room might be just what you need to keep your insulin response in check.