Summary: Caffeine can promote brown adipose tissue function and improve thermogenesis, helping to burn fat more efficiently.
Source: University of Nottingham
Scientists from the University of Nottingham have discovered that drinking a cup of coffee can stimulate ‘brown fat’, the body’s own fat-fighting defences, which could be the key to tackling obesity and diabetes.
The pioneering study, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, is one of the first to be carried out in humans to find components which could have a direct effect on ‘brown fat’ functions, an important part of the human body which plays a key role in how quickly we can burn calories as energy.
Brown adipose tissue (BAT), also known as brown fat, is one of two types of fat found in humans and other mammals. Initially only attributed to babies and hibernating mammals, it was discovered in recent years that adults can have brown fat too. Its main function is to generate body heat by burning calories (as opposed to white fat, which is a result of storing excess calories).
People with a lower body mass index (BMI) therefore have a higher amount of brown fat.
Professor Michael Symonds, from the School of Medicine at the University of Nottingham who co-directed the study said: “Brown fat works in a different way to other fat in your body and produces heat by burning sugar and fat, often in response to cold. Increasing its activity improves blood sugar control as well as improving blood lipid levels and the extra calories burnt help with weight loss. However, until now, no one has found an acceptable way to stimulate its activity in humans.
“This is the first study in humans to show that something like a cup of coffee can have a direct effect on our brown fat functions. The potential implications of our results are pretty big, as obesity is a major health concern for society and we also have a growing diabetes epidemic and brown fat could potentially be part of the solution in tackling them.”
The team started with a series of stem cell studies to see if caffeine would stimulate brown fat. Once they had found the right dose, they then moved on to humans to see if the results were similar.
The team used a thermal imaging technique, which they’d previously pioneered, to trace the body’s brown fat reserves. The non-invasive technique helps the team to locate brown fat and assess its capacity to produce heat.
“From our previous work, we knew that brown fat is mainly located in the neck region, so we were able to image someone straight after they had a drink to see if the brown fat got hotter,” said Professor Symonds.
“The results were positive and we now need to ascertain that caffeine as one of the ingredients in the coffee is acting as the stimulus or if there’s another component helping with the activation of brown fat. We are currently looking at caffeine supplements to test whether the effect is similar.
Caffeine exposure induces browning features in adipose tissue in vitro and in vivo
Brown adipose tissue (BAT) is able to rapidly generate heat and metabolise macronutrients, such as glucose and lipids, through activation of mitochondrial uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1). Diet can modulate UCP1 function but the capacity of individual nutrients to promote the abundance and activity of UCP1 is not well established. Caffeine consumption has been associated with loss of body weight and increased energy expenditure, but whether it can activate UCP1 is unknown. This study examined the effect of caffeine on BAT thermogenesis in vitro and in vivo. Stem cell-derived adipocytes exposed to caffeine (1 mM) showed increased UCP1 protein abundance and cell metabolism with enhanced oxygen consumption and proton leak. These functional responses were associated with browning-like structural changes in mitochondrial and lipid droplet content. Caffeine also increased peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma coactivator 1-alpha expression and mitochondrial biogenesis, together with a number of BAT selective and beige gene markers. In vivo, drinking coffee (but not water) stimulated the temperature of the supraclavicular region, which co-locates to the main region of BAT in adult humans, and is indicative of thermogenesis. Taken together, these results demonstrate that caffeine can promote BAT function at thermoneutrality and may have the potential to be used therapeutically in adult humans.