Brown Fat: A Secret Survival Resource?

An intriguing article on brown fat may cause you to wonder about the possibilities.

When looking for information on the Internet these days, it pays to be a skeptic. While the Internet offers us a nearly limitless storehouse of information, it also has its drawbacks. Literally anyone, can post anything, about whatever they want. Also, depending on their ability to control their site’s appearance, even a site that looks very professional can be full of baloney. For example, this link will direct you to a site that purposely spreads false facts about history. I use this particular site as a resource for my high school students to learn good Internet research practices. In my class we talk about how much fake and false information is out there, and ways to spot it. That is one reason a recent article I read about the impact of brown fat on a body had me diving to more corners of the Internet for validation.

The article comes from the Men’s Journal and is titled The Cold Cure; What Freezing Water and Extreme Altitude Can Do for Our Health. It is certainly an interesting story, and worth the read. To summarize the article, is was written by author Scott Carney about his ability to endure extreme cold. He talks about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and being subjected to temperatures of -24˚, while spending most of his journey without even a shirt on. The article goes on to briefly review the history of modern humans and what that life would have been like. He describes, rightly in my opinion, that our oldest ancestors lived in a world very unlike our own. While we live in 72˚ climate controlled houses, businesses, and vehicles, our ancestors lived in a world of varying temperatures and extremes. Whether it be the extreme heat of the savanna, or the icy clutches of the arctic, human bodies spent almost 200,000 years living in a world of unpredictability.

Carney claims that one mechanism our bodies developed to fight extreme cold is a tissue called brown adipose tissue, or BAT, or brown fat. As Carney explains, the main purpose of BAT is to pull ordinary white fat from your tissue to burn it for heat energy. Not only would this process keep you lean, but it would allow you to efficiently burn body energy to stay warm. It used to be believed that only babies had stores of brown fat. The thought was it kept them alive until the body could generate enough heat by other means to stay alive. This article from Live Science also claims it wasn’t until 2009 researches realized adults also have stores of brown fat in our bodies. Oddly enough, people with a lower body mass index (BMI) have higher level of BAT than heavier people.

While most of the search results about brown fat relate to weight loss, several also discuss Carney’s claim about it helping you to stay warm. One interesting article from UC Berkley explains how mice exposed to colder temperatures had higher levels of brown fat and maintained a lean body profile. Another article from ScienceMag.org also relates to BAT and temperature. Simply put, there is quite a lot of other information to support Carney and his claim that you can actually regulate your body’s temperature internally by encouraging it to create more brown fat.

There is also a good deal of information about a fella named Wim Hof. Hof is the person who taught Carney, and many others, a special breathing technique that allowed his body to stay warm at very cold temperatures. Hof has an incredible list of accomplishments including climbing Mt. Everest in gym shorts and no shirt, running a marathon  in polar winter in sandals and gym shorts, and the world’s longest swim under ice. There is lots of information on the web about Hof and people who have experimented with this technique. This first video is of the podcast Hof did with Joe Rogan. The second video is another brief video explaining what Hof does with medical people explaining the science behind what he is doing.

 

All of this information leads me personally into more questions than answers. Would this be something that works for everyone? Is it applicable for real life, or just brief stunts? Also, is this something people in the past were aware of and we have lost until now?

I also find myself wondering about countless stories about historical hunters, trappers, and Paleo people able to withstand seemingly intolerable conditions. One story that stands out comes from the record of an early French trapper (the name of who escapes me) who shared a camp with a few Cree hunters. The story goes that as the nighttime temperatures dipped well below freezing the Frenchmen huddled closely around their burning campfire. As they did so, they observed the Cree hunters sitting toward the fringes of the firelight; shirtless and sweating. Upon first hearing this story my initial reaction is that these hunters’ bodies had hardened to the cold. After learning about BAT though, my curiosity wonders if there was more to it than that.

Whether brown fat and Wim Hof’s breathing technique are an adequate solution to the layman’s need to stay warm remains to be seen. There does seem to be a growing body of people who practice his technique and preach its benefits. Although it pays to be skeptical, this topic seems to be generating enough support that it warrants a closer look. Perhaps it will be something that can help all of us stay a little warmer when it’s cold outside.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on Wim Hof and using brown fat to stay warm in the comment section below.

Also, thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you like the content you may enjoy this article Why to Start a Bow Drill Fire.

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