Want to lose weight? It’s simple, just turn down the thermostat, according to Dutch researchers.
Regular exposure to mildly cold temperatures help people burn more calories, according to researchers from the Netherlands who published the study in the journal Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.
“Since most of us are exposed to indoor conditions 90 percent of the time, it is worth exploring health aspects of ambient temperatures,” said study researcher Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt of Maastricht University Medical Center. “What would it mean if we let our bodies work again to control body temperature?”
People shiver in response to cold, the researchers explain, so the body ramps up heat production, which in turn increases the amount of energy it uses. However, exposure to mild cold, it appears, can trigger “nonshivering thermogenesis,” or heat production that is stimulated not by shivering, but by brown fat cells.
The primary function of brown fat cells is to generate body heat in mammals that do not shiver, particularly newborn babies and hibernating animals. Unlike white fat cells, brown cells do not store energy, using it instead to heat the body. They are called brown cells because of the darker colour of their mitochondria, the source of their heat-generating energy.
Other research suggests that in addition to using their own energy, brown fat cells recruit energy from white fat cells, which further aids weight loss.
Lichtenbelt and his team found that nonshivering thermogenesis is weakened in obese people and in the elderly. And that obese people have less brown adipose tissue than people in the normal weight range.
In young and middle-aged people, heat production through brown fat can account for up to 30 percent of the body’s energy budget, the researchers said.
The study also found that people get used to the cold over time. After spending six hours a day at 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) for 10 days, people in the study not only had more brown fat, the participants also said they felt more comfortable and shivered less when exposed to lower temperatures.
Although, 59-degrees might be too cold for most people, it’s possible that room temperatures in the mid-60s would also activate brown fat, the researchers said.
Lichtenbelt suggests varying the temperature in your house and your office by a few degrees over time. Letting the indoor temperature rise and fall will encourage your body to adjust its internal temperature accordingly, he says, increasing your energy expenditure.
“Similarly to exercise training, we advocate temperature training. More frequent cold exposure alone is not going to save the world,” from obesity, he says, “but is a serious factor to consider for creating a sustainable environment along with a healthy lifestyle.”