For many people who have heard about “brown fat” through documentaries on the Inuit people and the like, it might seem like some mysterious trait only a few human populations way up north might have.
And for a long time, many people including myself thought that those living in the harshest winter conditions were just “built different.”
Brown Fat Cell rich in mitochondria. Image by Scientific Animations on Wikimedia Commons.
But it turns out that regular people can build up their brown fat to boost one’s health and wellness.
The key to it is, of course, Cold Exposure.
But can we really gain substantial amounts of brown fat even if we don’t live in places like Siberia or Northern Canada?
The simple answer is, yes, you can increase your brown fat with ice baths.
But of course, as researchers have shown, there are optimal ways to do so in a way that won’t have you buying a plane ticket to the coldest parts of the world.
So, let’s explore the benefits of this type of fat, and how exactly you can get more of it with regular ice baths.
What is Brown Fat?
So that everyone’s on the same page, let’s define what brown fat is.
Brown Fat, or “brown adipose tissue,” is fat that burns calories to produce heat.
Brown fat is found in small deposits throughout the body.
It’s also more common in new-born infants and animals that hibernate.
Difference between Brown Fat and White Fat
Both Brown Fat and White Fat store energy, but each of them differs in function and where you can find them in your body.
To put it simply, brown fat actively burns calories, while white fat stores excess energy.
White fat also insulates organs, but can also lead to obesity if one has too much of it.
Brown fat is smaller than white fat. Brown fat is also darker in colour because it has more mitochondria, which is iron-rich and produces heat.
Aside from storing energy, it burns those calories and creates heat right before your body starts to shiver. This is known as thermogenesis.
Aside from brown fat’s traits in helping humans survive through the cold, it also has very helpful benefits that are currently being explored by further research.
We’ll get to these benefits in the following section.
Benefits of Brown Fat
So, aside from how it can help us resist the cold through the heat it makes, why is brown fat beneficial for our health?
First of all, brown fat can be a great help in weight loss.
Brown fat tissues are “powerful generators of heat that safely metabolise fat.” (Source: Role of Energy Metabolism in the Brown Fat Gene Program)
Brown fat can also improve insulin sensitivity, which is important for regulating blood sugar levels and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, studies have shown that increasing brown fat can lower the risk of obesity-related diseases, such as heart disease and stroke.
A study of more than 50 thousand patients analysed their level of brown fat, finding that higher brown fat lowered “the odds of type II diabetes, coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure.”
The researchers also found that when someone is overweight or obese, the benefits of brown fat were bigger—meaning brown fat can offset the harmful effects of obesity.
Patients with brown fat also had lower rates of high blood pressure. (Study: Brown Adipose Tissue is Associated with Improved Cardiometabolic Health and Regulates Blood Pressure)
Among these benefits, brown fat can also burn fat, and you can do this through Ice Baths.
Now you might be wondering, if ice baths burn fat, won’t the brown fat be burned too?
Do Ice Baths Burn Brown Fat?
No, ice baths do not burn brown fat. However, ice baths can burn white fat because when you’re exposed to cold temperatures, brown fat can use white fat as fuel to generate heat, which is called thermogenesis, as we mentioned earlier in this article.
Okay, so let’s get into how ice baths can actually burn white fat:
Do Ice Baths Help Burn Fat?
In addition to activating brown fat, ice baths can also help burn white fat.
That’s because brown fat produces a hormone called Adiponectin. Studies have shown that it has insulin-sensitising, anti-inflammatory effects as well as can help with weight loss. (Source)
Cold exposure can also increase the levels of adiponectin, as a study with a 2-hour cold exposure on men found. (Study: Cold exposure increases adiponectin levels in men)
Since the brown adipose tissue produces heat—burning calories in the process—it can help increase our metabolism and help you shed excess weight.
During ice baths and other forms of cold exposure, brown fat starts to activate around right before you start shivering.
This is when the increased calorie burning and fat loss happens, which we’ll explore in the next section.
How Long Does It Take for Cold Water to Activate Brown Fat?
The amount of time it takes for cold water to activate brown fat can vary from person to person.
It really depends on your “shiver threshold,” AKA the temperature or conditions where you begin to shiver.
Let’s explore the research:
A small study found that a 2-hour exposure to 3°C above the participants’ shiver threshold promoted metabolic activity and energy use in brown fat.
“Cold exposure stimulates a sympathetically mediated increase in the rate of oxidative metabolism of brown and beige adipocytes.” (Source)
A study showed that even during “mild-cold” conditions of 15-16°C after 10 days, brown fat was activated.
Note that regular extreme cold temperatures don’t really recruit more brown fat.
A study of 2 identical twins, including one who regularly practised extreme cold exposure, found that he didn’t really have more brown adipose tissue activation, than his twin who had a more sedentary lifestyle who didn’t do cold exposure.
However, they both practised a breathing technique similar to Tummo, which was able to cause more heat production during the cold exposure they did in the study.
By the way, if you’re wondering about the twin who regularly did extreme cold exposure, the study was actually done on Wim Hof, otherwise known as The Iceman, as well as his identical twin. (Source: Frequent Extreme Cold Exposure and Brown Fat and Cold-Induced Thermogenesis: A Study in a Monozygotic Twin)
What is the Best Way to Increase Brown Fat?
So, what's the best way to increase brown fat?
As discussed earlier, when our body is exposed to cold temperatures, it activates brown fat to produce heat and warm up the body.
This can be achieved through cold showers, outdoor winter activities, or—you guessed it—ice baths.
Although, while cold exposure is key, exercise can also play a role in activating this type of fat tissue we surely could use more of.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has also been shown to increase brown fat activation, so you get the benefits of that, as well as the longer calorie burning period HIIT gives you.
Tips for maximising brown fat activation through Ice Baths
If you’ve been doing cold exposure therapy for a while and want to step up from cold showers, you can start increasing your brown fat activation through Ice Baths.
And if you don’t have access to a bathtub, it’s best to begin with a proper Ice Bath like our Ice Bath, which comes with all you need to get started: after the simple and easy setup, just add ice and water.
To maximise brown fat activation, we recommend using an ice bath regularly, ideally 2-3 times per week.
If you don’t have a lot of space, our Ice Bath makes cold exposure therapy accessible because it doesn’t take up a lot of space unlike other bulky and more expensive solutions.
Safety Tips When Using Ice Baths to Increase Brown Fat
Recruiting brown fat is best done right before you start shivering, so it makes sense to start with more manageable cold showers, and then slowly easing into lower temperatures in your cold exposure.
And then when you’re used to it, you can start incorporating ice baths into your routine.
Keep the ice bath at 10-15°C and don’t stay in for more than 10 minutes, especially when you’re still starting out.
Like always, if you have any pre-existing medical conditions, consult with your healthcare professional before doing any form of cold exposure therapy.
There are a ton of benefits with increasing your brown fat levels, from improved insulin sensitivity, lower blood pressure, to reduced risk of obesity-related diseases.
You can start to activate your brown fat (and build more of it) through cold exposure—just keep the temperature to right before you start shivering.
Ideally, you can use cold showers, and then eventually ice baths for this, as your body gets used to cold exposure.
If you’re ready to try cold immersion therapy and increase your brown fat levels, our portable Ice Bath is a great investment for your health. It’s easy to set up, doesn’t need plumbing, and doesn’t take up much space. Try our portable ice bath today and experience the many benefits of this form of cold therapy—Delivered straight from Christchurch to your doorstep NZ wide.
Achari, A. E., & Jain, S. K. (2017). Adiponectin, a Therapeutic Target for Obesity, Diabetes, and Endothelial Dysfunction. International journal of molecular sciences, 18(6), 1321. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms18061321 Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5486142/
Becher, T., Palanisamy, S., Kramer, D. J., Eljalby, M., Marx, S. J., Wibmer, A. G., Butler, S. D., Jiang, C. S., Vaughan, R., Schöder, H., Mark, A., & Cohen, P. (2021). Brown adipose tissue is associated with cardiometabolic health. Nature medicine, 27(1), 58–65. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-1126-7 Retrieved from: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.02.08.933754v2.abstract
Coolbaugh, C. L., Damon, B. M., Bush, E. C., Welch, E. B., & Towse, T. F. (2019, September 19). Cold exposure induces dynamic, heterogeneous alterations in human brown adipose tissue lipid content - Scientific Reports. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-49936-x Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-49936-x#citeas
Imbeault, P., Dépault, I., & Haman, F. (2009). Cold exposure increases adiponectin levels in men. Metabolism: clinical and experimental, 58(4), 552–559. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.metabol.2008.11.017 Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19303978/
Nam, M., & Cooper, M. P. (2015). Role of Energy Metabolism in the Brown Fat Gene Program. Frontiers in endocrinology, 6, 104. https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2015.00104 Retrieved from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fendo.2015.00104/full
Vosselman, M. J., Vijgen, G. H., Kingma, B. R., Brans, B., & van Marken Lichtenbelt, W. D. (2014). Frequent extreme cold exposure and brown fat and cold-induced thermogenesis: a study in a monozygotic twin. PloS one, 9(7), e101653. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101653 Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4094425/