While brown fat gobbles up glucose (sugar) to burn calories and create energy, white fat simply stores calories. Learn more about the difference and how to boost good fat.
Brown Fat vs. White Fat
A January 2021 study published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine has linked brown adipose tissue, or healthy brown fat, to protection against several chronic diseases. This is just the latest in a long list of studies that have shown us we should build more of this beneficial, energy-burning mass.
To understand all of the benefits of brown fat, it helps to compare it to the white fat we are so commonly in combat with. While brown fat gobbles up glucose (sugar) to burn calories and create energy, white fat simply stores calories. Metabolically harmful white fat seems to be a byproduct of a comfortable lifestyle, often the result of living in a warm house, with warm cloths and an abundance of food—specifically a diet of sweet, highly processed, and refined foods.
The Science on Brown Fat
Before I discuss ways to increase your brown fat levels, let’s look at the science. The Nature study measured brown and white fat concentrations in more than 50,000 people. The folks who had some detectible brown fat had about half the risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who had no brown fat and only white fat. The brown fat folks also had lower cholesterol, and a lower risk of obesity, hypertension, congestive heart failure, and coronary artery disease.1
5 Ways to Build Brown Fat
Studies have found that our ancestors were genetically adapted to cold environments, which encouraged the evolution of brown fat as a natural means of thermogenesis. Modern heat-adapted populations have slowly lost this genetic advantage and suffer from a lack a brown fat, often meaning they are predisposed to a host of metabolic concerns.17
Today, brown fat is naturally abundant in newborns and animals but generally deficient in modern humans. This may suggest that a modern lifestyle favors genes that slowly replace our baby brown fat with metabolically challenging white fat. Researchers fascinated with building brown fat have discovered numerous techniques to change white fat to brown fat. Below are some of the ways we’ve learned how to flip the switch on white fat.
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1. Calorie Restriction Increases Brown Fat
A 2019 study in the journal Aging Cell found that calorie restriction increased the production of brown fat. Just a 20% reduction in caloric intake increased the production of brown fat and reduced white fat in mice. The effect was linked to longevity and a decrease in metabolic disorders.2
With Spring upon us, this is the best time to start an Ayurvedic Calorie Restriction Program. The easiest way to do this is by skipping or reducing calories at supper. Having a breakfast and late lunch with no dinner is the classic way to intermittent fast and reduce calories without starvation.
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2. Some Foods, Herbs, and Spices Can Increase Brown Fat
Many fruits and herbs boost brown fat, but you have to eat the skin. The waxy coats on apples and other fruits and in herbs such as tulsi holy basil, basil, rosemary, lavender, and peppermint are rich in ursolic acid, which has been found to boost brown fat.3,4
Ursolic acid has also been found to increase fat burning and support healthy weight loss, healthy blood sugar, and healthy liver function, as well as increase energy production.4
Curcumin, one of the main constituents in turmeric, has been found to boost energy production in mitochondria and generate an increase in brown fat production. Turmeric has also been shown to slow the generation of unwanted white fat.12,16
Lastly, studies on capsaicin, found in cayenne peppers and green tea, and resveratrol, found in red grapes and omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish oils, increase brown fat production.13
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3. Exercise Increases Brown Fat
Numerous studies have linked regular exercise to the increased production of brown fat.5,6 In a study published in the journal Disease Models and Mechanisms, researchers determined that exercise stimulates the release of an enzyme called irisin (named after the Greek messenger god Iris) that converts white fat to brown fat.7
In another study, published in the journal Biology, 12 weeks of bicycle exercise training 3 times per week boosted irisin levels significantly, resulting in an increase of brown fat and a significant reduction in insulin resistance.8
How does exercise help? Exercise is perceived by the body as a stressor, one requiring energy to either fight or flee (sympathetic nervous system activation). This need for fuel results in increased brown fat production.
4. Cold Exposure Increases Brown Fat
Exercising in the cold or in combination with cold exposure provides even greater brown fat production benefits.9,10
In one study, published on PloS One, cold exposure doubled metabolic activity while increasing the production of brown fat. In another study, on cold exposure, volunteers were in 60-degree (symbol) Fahrenheit temperature-controlled rooms for 6 hours a day for 10 days and saw a significant increase in brown fat and blood sugar control.11
Cold exposure has been recently popularized by the “iceman,” or Wim Hof, who has broken several cold exposure records. His studies have documented the ability to increase brown fat with cold exposure. He suggests starting your cold exposure journey by ending a warm shower with cold water or by slowly building up to a 10 minute cold shower or 10 minute ice bath.14
4. Melatonin Supplementation Boosts Brown Fat
In the scientific community, melatonin is known to be much more than a sleep aid.
As a circadian clock regulator, melatonin aims to restore an evolutionary baseline of metabolic activity. Our intolerance to cold and lack of brown fat as we age can be reversed with melatonin supplementation. In one study, published in the journal Diabetes, 3 mg of melatonin were taken before bed for 3 months. Researchers found that this dose supported healthy cholesterol, blood sugar, and insulin levels, as well as a significant increase in brown fat.15