Exposure to cold temperatures causes changes in fat cells that could reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes, according to research published by the University of Tokyo.

The study, which assessed how fat cells in mice reacted to different temperatures, showed that white cells produced beige fat cells which burn energy when they were exposed to cold temperatures.

What is beige fat?

Beige fat actively breaks down fat and sugar to improve insulin sensitivity and increase metabolism. The study also revealed that beige fat could help to regulate energy balance.

White fat insulates our vital organs, but too much of it can lead to heart disease, obesity, diabetes and various cancers. Brown fat is healthier as it contains mitochondria cells which convert fat into heat.

Adaptive thermogenesis

Cold stress is something that all warm-blooded mammals have to combat. When we shiver, it creates short-term body heat by warming up the muscles; this is a form of short-term thermogenesis.

But adaptive thermogenesis is the chemical process that creates long term heat. This is where protein compounds attach themselves to DNA, and changes the way the body uses energy in order to maintain the right temperature.

The researchers from the study say that the process begins when the cold causes a change in the protein called JMJD1A. The altered protein changes the way the gene functions in producing heat. This initiates adaptive thermogenesis, transforming the white fat cells into beige fat cells which operate in a similar way to brown fat cells.

What did the study involve?

In the study, one group of mice was kept at 4 degrees centigrade and another at 30 degrees centigrade for one week. The mice that were kept at a lower temperature had a higher thermogenic activity, so their cells were able to burn stored fat to create heat.

Professor Juro Sakai, from the research team, notes that the findings shows that it is worth pursuing cold exposure as a means to helping with metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Even though a gene sequence is realised at conception, lifestyle and environmental choices can show how the genes are expressed and hence alter something like metabolism for the better.

Most drugs that are currently available can only target entire proteins or rely on hormones which affect the entire body. The research team believe that the findings allow them to envisage a future where metabolic diseases are treated by targeting single amino acids.

It should be noted that these findings should not be viewed as encouragement to subject oneself to very cold conditions to try and burn more fat, as this is potentially dangerous and the benefits are not fully understood at this stage.