You see it all the time in the media, some new pill or powder that will burn fat and allow you to eat whatever you want and never leave the couch. Sounds enticing, but we know it is often either too good to be true, or it comes with a plethora of health risks. As it turns out, there’s a far more natural means of burning fat that comes with as little lifestyle changes as possible. In fact, your body produces the substance responsible for this in your pineal gland. The substance I am referring to is melatonin.
The Importance of Melatonin
Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced in the human body that works on a circadian rhythm, meaning the levels of melatonin rise and fall in a predictable cycle. It is best known for its role in the sleep cycle and balancing mood. While the regulation of melatonin levels is largely responsible for signaling to your body that it is time to sleep, the effects of this hormone extend much further. Recent research indicates that melatonin may play a significant role in the treatment of obesity.
Brown Fat Cells: Harnessing this type of fat could aid weight loss
50 Shades of Fat
So how exactly does melatonin aid in obesity treatment? Before that question can be answered, a little background on the topic of brown fat is in order. Brown fat is different from the more well-known type of fat which can collect around organs and under the skin, which is known as white adipose tissue (WAT). White fat cells tend to store fat whereas brown fat is responsible for contributing to a process known as thermogenesis, which is the production of heat from fatty acids. This process has been associated with weight loss and there is evidence melatonin can convert WAT into brown fat, or more appropriately, brown fat-like cells known as beige fat.
A study that was published in the Journal of Pineal Research investigated melatonin’s transformative effects on WAT and the findings were rather promising.
The Research Method
The study employed the use of rats that had been bred to develop diet induced Type 2 Diabetes (T2D), and normal lean rats. The rats were divided into 4 groups which consisted of diabetic rats with and without melatonin treatment, also, lean rats with and without melatonin treatment. The melatonin was administered orally and the rats were treated for 6 weeks. After the treatment period, fat was collected from the inguinal area (groin and lower abdomen) and analyzed for the presence of beige fat.
It was known prior to the study that melatonin does in fact improve the metabolic profiles of T2D induced rats, without changing food intake and activity levels. It is because food intake and activity levels were not manipulated that scientists hypothesized that there was a thermogenic effect at play.
Results for Untreated Rats
75% of the lean untreated rats were found to have beige fat deposits in their inguinal area. The diabetic rats exhibited zero beige fat deposits in the same area. This tells us a couple of important facts. Beige fat appears to be prevalent in lean, healthy animals and it is totally absent in obese, diabetic animals without the treatment of melatonin.
Results for Melatonin Treated Rats
Astoundingly, melatonin treatment resulted in the conversion of WAT into beige fat in both the lean and obese rats. The researchers anticipated that the temperature of the skin would correlate to the level of fat browning that had occurred and thermal images revealed that they were correct. Melatonin treated rats were found to produce a higher heat signature in the inguinal area than rats that had not been treated.
Additional Findings of Interest
Another interesting finding of this experiment was that melatonin did not result in a higher level of physical activity in the rats. This confirms that beige and brown fat cells have fat burning effects regardless of activity levels.
What Makes Brown Fat Brown (or Beige)
The reason brown fat is darker in color is actually related to its metabolic activity. A part of our cells known as the mitochondria is responsible for energy metabolism and brown fat has a much higher level of much more active mitochondria. Brown fat mitochondria have an abundance of cytochromes which are energy promoting enzymes that give the fat cells a darker color.
This study suggests that brown fat contributes to the metabolism of individuals who are naturally lean. Obese and diabetic individuals may have very little brown fat. Oral melatonin supplementation can be a safe and effective way to combat obesity and improve the condition of those living with diabetes.
A study published in Annals of Medicine reported that mutations in the melatonin gene can negatively affect blood glucose levels. Melatonin receptors are present in the pancreas, which is the organ responsible for secreting insulin which is deficient in diabetics. It is possible that melatonin treatment can simultaneously cut body fat and help restore glucose balance.
Further testing is certainly needed but it appears we are growing ever closer to a safer, easier means of metabolic management.
This article was provided by biologist Jordan Court who writes for a diet blog that reviews popular diets, and publishes the latest promotions for Nutrisystem.