Food for Thought

>> Sunday, April 12, 2009

Patricia of Subjective Soup noted that her mother had been discussing "brown fat" with her and noted an article in the New York Times about it. This was in her latest blog. I mentioned that I had read that same article and had planned to write about it myself. And so I did, mostly because it got me to thinking.

For those of you that don't know what "brown fat" is (as I didn't), brown fat is a type of fat very high in mitochondria that has been known for some time to burn fat in infants as a heat source to prevent hypothermia. Infants have a hard time shivering and are quite susceptible to to hypothermia given their large surface area and small volume (and a number of other issues). By burning excess fat, they have an alternate method to keep warm. Brown fat makes it possible.

Up until recently, it was assumed that stores of brown fat (along the upper spine and back) just transformed into the regular "white fat" as the baby got older. Apparently, this is not so. Adults still have a store of this fat-burning fat. According to the New York Times article, those with larger or more active stores tend to be more slim, have a higher metabolic rate, be younger. Cold helps activate it (like sitting in a room at between 61-66 degrees), at least in mice as demonstrated by different experiments including one where mice, genetically predisposed toward obesity, were placed in a cold environment and their brown fat activated and caused a significant weight loss.

Certain hormones and cold can activated these stores. However, beta blockers can suppress brown fat activation. And that's what got me thinking.

I am fat. There are a number of good reasons for this. Most of my favored activities are sedentary. I have a knee defect that makes almost anything where I'm on my feet for any length of time very bad (and running/jumping/twisting the legs if very bad). I love to eat good food (and have a husband who can really cook). But I wonder...

When I lived in Las Vegas, I walked everywhere and I like walking. In Houston, walking is horrible with the humidity and heat. I was also very slender.

In fact, I was pretty much slender until after college when I was first treated for the recurrent migraines...with beta blockers. Of course, that's when I had my knee surgery too. And the change was drastic. I wonder...

Still, my mother-in-law went through her whole life being underweight, almost dangerously so, until about fifteen years ago. I'd be curious how closely that links up to when she started getting treated for her cluster migraines.

I wonder if the wonder drugs used to treat heart disorders, some nervous disorders and migraines might have had an unexpected side effect. There are a lot of potential causes for our obesity overload. I just wonder if there aren't reasons we never thought about like our easy control of our temperature environment and our use of of certain drugs for many diverse disorders.

That's, of course, speculation. And probably a modicum of wishful thinking. Wouldn't it be nice to have an explanation for the way things change from when we're young to when we're adults? Wouldn't it be nice to know there's a reason some things are harder for some than others?

The thought reminds me that it's easy to look for simple solutions, to, for example, change one's environment to make the road smooth for our cars, without thinking of what those changes are doing to water runoff and erosion patterns. Small changes can have unforeseen effects and it's easy to lose sight of the big picture.

I'm not saying this is the explanation. Just food for thought.


  • Unknown

    I also think that most SSRI antidepressants, and hormonal birth control, contribute to metabolic malfunction. The pharmaceutical juggernaut would argue both of those points, but ... I still think that for many folks, there's a connection.

  • Roy

    Steph, I take a beta blocker (Metroplol), and I noticed soon after I started to take it that I was much more susceptible to the cold than I used to be. I thought it was just because it restricted blood flow, but this makes sense, too. Hmmm...

  • Stephanie Barr

    David, I think you have a distinct point. There is a great deal of evidence, in my opinion, that we've gotten lazy when it comes to medicine, throwing pills at problems in the hope they'll fix it or at least suppress the symptoms long enough for us to think they're solved without addressing the root causes.

    I hadn't thought of that aspect, Roy, but it's an interesting thought. I wonder if that's a factor for the elderly and their sensitivity to cold - many have heart problems that call for beta blockers.

  • Patricia Rockwell

    Thanks, Stephanie. I will tell my Mom about what you have said here. I also want to note for you about her condition which is related to some of what you say. Last year when her paranoia was extreme (before we got her on the "right" meds), her weight had plummeted to the point where her doctors were very worried. Within a few months of starting the drug that actually started to help her, she gained 30 pounds. It may be this sudden increase in weight that has her suddenly attuned to mention of "brown fat" in the media.

  • Kelly

    It really is an interesting idea and I am curious to see what further research unveils.

    People often turn to medication for every little thing without realizing that it might cause other issues. I wonder how many of those issues the doctors prescribing the meds are unaware of as well.

    It would be incredible to learn that a portion of the jump in obesity is due to drugs that alter the brown fats.

    Very interesting indeed.


  • Marianne

    Interesting ideas.

  • Bob Johnson

    About 20 years ago I went from 240 lbs down to 150, hard work, proper eating and exercise.. The key was, me being 20 years younger. Now I look at food I gain weight, the key is metabolism, mine seems to have stopped. Interesting about beta blockers suppressing brown fat activation

  • Relax Max

    Interesting. I had never even heard of "brown fat" before, and certainly not in the context of helping the body keep warm in the cold, or of losing weight. I will have to study up on the connection between beta blockers (although they are not in my own life now.) I have always assumed (not sure why) that when one is slender through their youth but begin to gain weight in their mid-twenties, it was simply the body's hormonal changes coupled with a (usually) more sedentary lifestyle when one settles into the world of work. Your post is food for thought. I am pretty convinced from my own life that metabolism is the key, more than dieting. I, too, think we are too quick to try to throw more pills at things that really require lifestyle changes. Good post.

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