The cold, vitamin A and burning fat: Study finds new connections

Researchers hope it will lead to new developments in therapeutic treatments for obesity.

Monika Warzecha 3 minute read October 22, 2020
Cold and vitamin A research

Research looked at vitamin A in mice and humans. Getty

Researchers studying different types of fat hope their work will lead to a possible new way to treat obesity: it involves Vitamin A and cold temperatures.

A team from the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism at the Medical University of Vienna found that cold ambient temperatures increase vitamin A levels in mice — and, more importantly, humans.

The study, published in the Molecular Metabolism journal, looked at two types of body fat deposits in mammals: “bad” white adipose tissue and “good” brown adipose tissue. Excess calories are mainly stored in white adipose tissue, which is generally located in the abdomen, bottom, and upper thighs. Brown fat burns calories or energy to generate heat.

According to the Mayo Clinic, brown fat is activated when you get cold and helps maintain your body temperature. It is also believed that exercise may release hormones that activate brown fat.

A statement on the study from the medical university notes “most of the vitamin A reserves are stored in the liver and cold exposure seems to stimulate the redistribution of vitamin A towards the adipose tissue.”

The team, which included scientists from Harvard and Rutgers University in the U.S., found that a moderate, cold-induced increase in vitamin A lead to a “browning” or converstion of white fat into brown fat.

Scientists blocked the vitamin A transporter “retinol-binding protein” in mice by genetic manipulation. They found this “blunted” the cold-mediated rise in vitamin A and the “browning” of the white fat.

However, “the addition of vitamin A to human white fat cells led to the expression of brown fat cell characteristics, with increased metabolic activity and energy consumption.”

The lead researcher, Florian Kiefer, says this could help in future therapeutic interventions for treating obesity. But he does offer a word of caution: “This is not an argument for consuming large amounts of vitamin A supplements if not prescribed, because it is critical that vitamin A is transported to the right cells at the right time.”

Worldwide obesity rates have nearly tripled since 1975, the World Health Organization says, with 650 million adults across the globe considered obese in 2015. In 2018, about 7.3 million Canadian adults, or nearly 27 per cent of adults, reported height and weight that classified them as obese, according to Statistics Canada.

If you or someone you care about is living with obesity, connecting with a support network can help to not only learn ways to better manage their health, but also share experiences with others. Some Canadian resources include Obesity Canada.

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