A Little Stress is Not a Bad Thing

Scientists are learning more about 'brown fat' — it might help with the obesity epidemic

For optimal health, we’re often told that we need to let things go. We need to breathe deeply and meditate.

That may be true. But mild stress — different from chronic stress — could actually help us as a calorie-burner. A little tension stimulates what’s called brown fat in our bodies, which raises cortisol. In turn it could regulate our weight and lead to treatments for weight-related conditions.

“Stress is widely considered to have a negative impact on body weight. But our study shows that mild psychological stress could actually promote brown fat activity and therefore have a beneficial effect on body weight regulation,” Dr. Michael E. Symonds, a professor at the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine, told LifeZette.

Brown fat is one of two types of fat in our bodies; everyone has at least a little bit of it. White fat is produced by storing excess calories. Brown fat burns energy, can rapidly metabolize glucose and lipids, and produces heat. Higher amounts of it are linked to lower body mass index (BMI).

Because of this, scientists such as Symonds are hoping to exploit its power to fight obesity.

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The Science
Symonds conducted the research by inducing a mild psychological stress on five healthy, lean women. The stressor? A math test with results measured in real time.

The women were told they had to solve a math test — twice. During the second test two days later, researchers showed the women a relaxation video. They found the math tests themselves did not trigger an acute stress response; rather, it was the anticipation of the test. That caused higher cortisol levels and warmer brown fat — so mild anticipatory anxiety could have positive effects.

The researchers measured cortisol levels via saliva, and used infrared thermography to detect changes in the temperature of the skin in the neck region (a main area of brown fat).

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“Our research indicates that the variation in brown fat activity between individuals may be explained by differences in their response to psychological stress,” Symonds said. “This is important, as brown fat has a unique capacity to rapidly generate heat and metabolize glucose.”

The Cortisol Factor
Isn’t cortisol bad? Yes. Too much of the stress-causing hormone in our bodies can create problems.

However, it is a necessary hormone that normalizes blood pressure and helps our cardiovascular systems function properly, according to the Mayo Clinic. Cortisol assists our bodies in responding to stress and controls how we metabolize proteins, carbohydrates and fats into usable energy. A mild amount of it is normal and a good thing.

“The release of cortisol is part of the normal physiological response to stress. Without it we would not function normally,” Symonds said.

In the future, techniques to induce mild stress to promote brown fat activity could be incorporated with dietary and/or environmental interventions, Symonds said.

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A drug used to treat people with overactive bladder can boost brown fat activity — that’s according to a report in the journal Cell. And Live Science noted this: “The medication, called mirabegron, stimulates receptors called beta 3 receptors, which cause smooth muscle — in, for example, your bladder — to relax. These receptors also are found on both brown and white fat cells, the researchers said.”

Drugs that fire up brown fat could help treat people with fatty liver disease, a buildup of fat cells in the liver that affects nearly 25 percent of people in the United States.

In the meantime, if you want to see if increased brown fat activity might help your own weight loss efforts, know that brown fat is activated by cold as well as stress. Perhaps a cold shower first thing in the morning or going for a walk in the snow may help stimulate your brown fat calorie burning cells. A cold state could even help you to grow new brown-fat cells, according to a 2014 study by National Institutes of Health.

Make no mistake, though: The kind of stress that can activate brown fat is way different than chronic, severe stress — that’s the type of anxiety that contributes to poor metabolic health.

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