Activated brown fat reduces cardiovascular disease

André Frankhuizen

Activated brown fat protects from atherosclerosis, which reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. This was revealed by a recent study published in the online medical journal Nature Communications. What is brown fat and how do you activate it?


In 2009 it was discovered that not only babies, but adults too, have brown adipose tissue. Since then, research has gained momentum. Stimulation of brown adipose tissue has been found to be a promising therapeutic strategy for obesity and metabolic syndrome. This has been evidenced by animal research and the effect has also been found in humans. Researchers at the Leiden University Medical Centre have now proven that activation of brown adipose tissue also contributes to healthy cholesterol levels and it counteracts the development of atherosclerosis. 

What is brown fat?

Brown fat is a type of adipose tissue designed primarily to generate body heat. Deposits of brown fat cells are located above the collarbone, around the aorta and it also occurs between white fat cells. When our body registers cold, the brown fat starts to produce heat. Fats in the bloodstream provide the energy source for this. However, this conversion results in high levels of cholesterol. Scientists were therefore critical: losing weight may be advisable, but elevated cholesterol can lead to atherosclerosis. 

The liver absorbs cholesterol

When a mouse is given Western food, its cholesterol level rises and it develops atherosclerosis. In the past, researchers had already proven that activated brown fat in mice absorbs fats from the blood as fuel. The recent research demonstrates that the liver absorbs the cholesterol rapidly and efficiently, so that the cholesterol does not accumulate in the blood vessels. The mice were then less likely to develop atherosclerosis than without activation of brown fat, resulting in a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Activating brown fat

But how do you activate your brown fat? Ph.D. student Maarten Vosselman, from the University of Maastricht, has researched this. The best strategy seems to be to cool down the body. In ‘the Iceman’ Wim Hof, brown fat appears in any case to be partly responsible for his ability to resist extreme cold. But you don’t need to immediately dive through a hole in the ice: turning the heating down from 20 degrees to 18 degrees can also stimulate the brown fat. Animal research has also shown that brown fat is more active following a high-fat meal than after high-sugar meals. Finally, the element capsaicin found in red peppers is a promising stimulator.


  1. J. F.P. Berbe et al. Brown fat activation reduces hypercholesterolaemia and protects from atherosclerosis development, Nature Communications, 10 Mar 2015
  2. Takeshi Yoneshiro et al., Recruited brown adipose tissue as an antiobesity agent in humans, J Clin Invest. 2013 Aug 1; 123(8): 3404–3408.
  4. Marken Lichtenbelt WD, Vanhommerig JW, Smulders NM, Drossaerts JM, Kemerink GJ, Bouvy ND, Schrauwen P, Teule GJ 2009. Cold activated brown adipose tissue in healthy men. N Engl J Med 360:1500-1508.