HowStuffWorks: Can Our Bodies ‘Learn’ to Withstand Frigid Temperatures?

February 1, 2022


Brown Fat: The Fireplace in Your Body

Brown adipose tissue — aka brown fat or BAT — is the kind of fat that you want on your body because it helps maintain body temperature. Zhiqiang Lin, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the Masonic Medical Research Institute (MMRI) in Utica, New York. The goal of the “Lin Lab” is to study the genetic programs that control brown fat growth and function.

“Brown fat refers to brown adipose tissue that consumes fatty acids for heat production,” says Lin, who helped develop new technology for studying brown fat. “Compared to white fat (white adipose tissue), brown fat cells have more mitochondria and less lipid contents. Brown fat serves as a fireplace in our body to keep us warm.”

Brown fat transfers energy from food into heat, which is why it plays an important part in keeping our bodies warm.

Some scientists argue that brown fat evolved early on in mammals, and helped give us a leg up from other species. Human babies are born with a lot of brown fat, to protect them from cold at birth, but it’s cold stress that builds up BAT in adults.

“Regular cold stress may increase innervation in brown fat and skeletal muscles,” Lin explains. “Therefore, individuals regularly exposed to cold (such as winter swimmers) have higher heat generation efficiency than normal healthy individuals.”

Not only does brown fat help keep people exposed to cold stress warmer, but recent studies also suggest it plays a role in maintaining our metabolic homeostasis, which can protect us from metabolic diseases, like Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases, Lin explains.

“During cold exposure, nerves under the skin transduce a cold signal to the brain, which then sends out signals to brown fat or skeletal muscle to generate heat,” he says. “Therefore, regular cold exposure potentially increases calorie consumption and may be beneficial for preventing obesity.”

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