“Biohacking is a fairly new practice that could lead to major changes in our life. You could it call citizen or do-it-your-self biology. It takes place in small labs — mostly non-university — where all sorts of people get together to explore biology. That could mean figuring out how the DNA in plants affects their growth, or how to manipulate genes from another source to make a plant glow in the dark.” – Spencer Michels in PBS.org

The meaning and purpose of biohacking has changed significantly in the four years since the above words were spoken. Today, it comprises a variety of categories, including grinder biohacking (which involves technological implants or chemical manipulation of the body), DIYBio (conducting biological experiments in unconventional manners) and nutrigenomics – nutritional manipulation of bodily activities. In this post, we focus on a new study published in Scientific Reports, which shows how cold temperatures can transform the type of fat we form in our bodies and potentially helps eliminate excess fat.

Why is Brown Fat Healthier?

The body has two types of fat: white, and brown. The latter is a type of tissue that burns sugar and fat instead of storing it. Nutritional expert, Dr. Ronesh Sinha, notes that that there is a big difference between white and brown fat: while the former is inactive, the latter is a calorie burning machine that relies on glucose and triglycerides (which can cause heart disease if they are not used for energy). Traditional ways to ‘hack’ the body into optimal energy efficiency is to take part in regular exercise. Doing so leads to the production of irisin: a hormone what converts white fat into brown fat.

Some Populations at a Higher Risk of Heart Disease

As noted by Dr. Sinha in his book The South Asian Health Solution, South Asians are at a higher risk of insulin resistance and heart disease owing to a combination of factors, which includes a lack of exercise, high stress, and a diet that is too rich in starches and unhealthy fats. He recommends the use of healthy oils such as olive oil which is ideal for the skin as well, especially when it is ozonated. He additionally recommends the use of ghee, rather than trans vegetable oils such as sunflower or corn oil. There is a further risk for South Asians: a new study by researchers at Leiden University Medical Center has found they have smaller, less active brown fat stores than their Caucasian counterparts.

How Can Human Beings Use the Cold to Build More Brown Fat?

In the above-mentioned Scientific Reports study, researchers differentiated stems cells to become fat cells at both normal body temperature and lower temperatures. They found that as the temperature became cooler, the cells formed brown fat, which causes the body to burn more calories and fat, in order to keep warm. Lead author, Virginie Sottile, said that although it has been known for some time that the cold can stimulate the formation of brown fat, “the trigger was believed to be the body’s nervous system and changes in the way we eat when we are cold. However, our study has shown that even by making fairly modest changes in temperature, we can activate our stem cells to form brown fat at a cellular level.” In the study, a difference of only five degrees turned the stem cells into brown fat. The findings are so important because they show that the body does not need ‘special cells’ to produce brown fat; all it needs its the right stimulus, which can come from physical activity and colder temperatures.

Cold showers, iced baths, and winter swims have long been associated with better health but new research has shown that they can do more than boost circulation; indeed, they can manipulate the body into producing a crucial fat burning powerhouse: brown fat. Further research needs to be undertaken into the amount (temperature and time) of cold exposure required, but the findings are a powerful testimony to the big effects that making small lifestyle changes can have on our health.

By Guest Author Allie Cooper