Can Shivering Help Burn Fat?

by The Health Sciences Academy — Get free science updates here.

Would you ever put these three together in an equation?

Feeling Cold + Shivering = Reducing White Adipose Tissue

To understand how that works, let’s cover some basics about adipose (fat) tissue.

The adipose tissue that we have in our bodies comes in two colours: white and brown. Each hold their own individual meaning.

White adipose tissue stores energy. It is the type of fat that one can see. It also pads our internal organs acting as a thermal insulator and cushion.

However, there’s another type of fat in humans, which has been ignored until recently. It’s called brown fat and you can’t really see it when you look in the mirror. It is located primarily around the neck and collar bones.

Unlike white fat, this precious brown fat is metabolically active. In other words, it oxidises (burns) white fat.

So brown fat burns energy.

If maximally stimulated, it can burn off between 300 and 500 extra calories a day. And not just any calories, but calories stored in white fat reserves.

So just how can brown fat be stimulated to burn calories?

Turn down the heat or grab a glass of chilly water, and come join me as I show you just how you can help activate brown fat.

How do I activate brown fat?

You see, when you’re cold, brown fat is usually the first thing to activate to heat up your body. It generates body heat by burning the white fat.

In other words, exposing ourselves to cold temperatures can help oxidise (burn) white fat and also increase our metabolism in a healthy way. Such process is called cold thermogenesis.

Unfortunately, brown fat is present in very tiny amounts in adults. Some people have more, some have less.

If someone’s goal is to lose weight, their ideal scenario would be a higher number of brown fat cells and a lower number of white fat cells.

But can you increase the number of brown fat cells?

Yes, according to a 2014 study.

The researchers in the study discovered that shivering can actually stimulate the conversion of energy-storing white fat into energy-burning brown fat.

They believe that the bonus to having more brown fat is that it is a potential therapeutic target against obesity and even diabetes.

Here’s how brown fat increments inside the body look like (Can you see the darker bits? That’s brown fat):

Brown fat increments. PET scan source: PMID 22851631

Brown fat increments. PET scan PMID 22851631

The shiver response and Irisin, a newly discovered hormone

When we are cold and we shiver, we generate heat in the body by activating our brown fat. This happens because our muscles contract mechanically in response to the environmental shift in temperature.

That shivering stimulates a hormone called Irisin, which is produced in our muscles. Irisin, discovered by Harvard scientists in 2012, does two major things in our bodies:

  1. It promotes the browning of fat to release energy, which causes weight (fat) loss.
  2. It improves glucose tolerance in the body, which can help prevent diabetes.

Irisin is the same hormone released during exercise, but in the case of cold exposure, you don’t even have to move!

Oh, and as a premium perk: Irisin can also slow the ageing process down by lengthening our telomeres. Remember, shorter telomeres are tied to stress and premature ageing.

Believe it or not, shivering for 10-15 minutes has been shown to produce the same amount of Irisin that exercising for an hour on the bicycle would.

Do you see the relationship and the remarkable metabolic effects of shivering?

Now, these comparisons do not imply that you should stop moving your body. We’re designed to move and there are a few health risks associated with too much sitting time (learn about “sitting science” here).

Building up your brown fat brigade

Some of us have very little brown fat. But we can help build that amount by training ourselves to become a little bit less uncomfortable in the cold. As we’ve just learned, the body can adapt fairly well to keep us warm.

In January 2014, a group of Dutch researchers showed that volunteers who were exposed to cold weather for a few hours a day for 10 days increased brown fat, felt more comfortable, and shivered less at 15ºC (59ºF).

There are several, safe ways to expose the body to cold temperatures. Here are a few ideas:

If you are in an already cold climate:

  • Taking a 20 minute walk when it's colder (also called a 'shiver walk').
  • Doing yoga in the chilly weather.
  • Considering slightly lighter clothing and lighter bed covers at night.
  • Lowering the thermostat or keeping windows open for a while.
  • Practising winter sports like skiing and snowboarding.

If you are in a hot climate:

  • Taking a cold bath up to your waist for 10 to 15 minutes. To prevent hypothermia, the water temperature should not be lower than 15-20°C (59-68°F).
  • Taking a cold shower for about 5 minutes.
  • Drinking ice cold water (to promote a similar shivering effect in the body).
  • Lowering the thermostat of your air-conditioning.
  • Seeking a soak in sea water, which is naturally colder, or taking a swim, even in a pool.
  • Surfing and water sports are (fun) ways to expose the body to cold temperatures.

Remember, whilst exposing yourself to colder temperatures, it is of utmost importance to keep it safe. Please be mindful of this and follow this link to educate yourself in the prevention of hypothermia.

What do you think?

Are you ready to cradle the cold? Did you ever try out cold thermogenesis for yourself, or have a client that has used it to build brown fat and lose weight? Do you have any other creative ideas to stimulate the shivering effect?

Let us know in the comments below and pass this along to someone you know might enjoy getting a cold boost!

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