Monday, July 23, 2012

Getting leaner with Brown Fat, Thermogenisis and Chilli Sauce? Is hot sauce hot enough to burn fat? Maybe - if we have "active" brown fat.

A lot of us look for ways to boost fat burning or to stop fat from being created in the first place on our quest for getting lean and staying lean. Alpha lipoic acid from 800mg [1] to 1800mg a day [2], alpha lipoic acid with CoQ10 even [3] looks at interrupting fat creation. Then there's thermogenisis, getting some heat up in the system to burn fat mobilized for use as energy. There are a number of foods and supplements that seem to contribute to thermogenisis, and chilli sauce - or the stuff that makes chilli sauce - may be one of those. The degree to which it may work, however, seems correlated to how well we might burn fuel when we're cold.

Into the (Fat Burning) Fire - with Food

When we hear about thermogenisis in weight loss, we are looking for stuff that increases the fuel burn - that puts the furnace on a higher setting. In us, that means getting our base metabolic rate up. Intriguingly and ironically food itself is thermogenic, with protein being more thermogenic than carbs or fat. Exercise does this, too. There are also supplements that aid in fat mobilization and fat burning, common things like green tea, caffeine, fish oil, yohimbine.

Hot Sauce Thermogenisis

According to research starting in about 2008, another member of the fat burning squad is supposed to be capsaicin - the hot part of chilli peppers [4]. Goody! something to add to food for flavour.

I am thrilled to report that i was recently introduced to a beautiful hot sauce, made in mexico. It's called Chohula hot sauce - unlike stuff made with the habenaro peppers, this is made with piquin and arbol. The taste is flavourful, fruity - i love it. Apparently this is a pretty common brand in the US, but i'd never encountered it.

Let me say right up front i have nothing to do with this company. It's just great tasting. I've not had this experience with a hot sauce before. Awesome with eggs, with veggies, with black beans - well - everything. Awesome, flavourful kick that sustains the taste of the food longer. So personally, i think one eats less because of enjoying the mouthful of flavour more. mmm. And to think that this stuff improves fat burning? Wow. What could be better. Bring it on!

Hot Sauce Stirs Up with Active Brown Fat Only?

But one moment, fat burning and food fans: it's not so clear that capsaicin, or more particularly, capsinoids, the bits of capsaicin that give it its omph, actually have an unequivocal, universal thermogenic effect.

Not long after the work about the thermogenic effect of hot stuff came out, another study showed just about zero effect of the stuff [5]. What could possibly be going on? A more recent and interesting papers come out [6]  to suggest that the reason for the different findings may be brown fat (touched on in b2d here), but not just any kind of brown fat: active brown fat.

Brown Fat as Active Fat

Brown fat, or Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) is pretty cool: it uses fat to make heat. That means it burns (oxidises) fat [7], usually, to keep us warm.

Brown fat: rich in mitochondria - what cells use to oxidize, well, fat
 Brown fat also gets going (literally, activated) when our fight or flight chemicals get going. And finally, recent rodent research suggests that play also has a role.  Helen Kollias over at Precision Nutrition did a lovely overview of some cool mice research with BAT  that showed that BAT gets active when mice had rich environments (here's the paper [10]). Take away, as Kollias puts it 
An enriched environment increases a specific protein in the brain (BDNF) that activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) that increases brown fat in visceral fat. The increase in brown fat means a higher metabolism with less visceral white fat.
The mentally and physically stimulated mice had higher brown fat, less visceral white fat. They ate more and were leaner.

Active Fat

Guess what? Despite the wonderfulness of brown fat, some folks' brown fat isn't as thermogenic as other folks' [8]. How do we know? Well, researchers generally make people cold. Not super cold. We're talking 16-19 degrees C, depending on the study.  Right now, in Seattle, it's 17 C outside, and i'm walking around in shorts and a long sleeve shirt. So cold? not much. Living in the UK, 19 verges on what we'd call a summer day. Seems that when made "cold," not everyone's brown fat shows that it's burning fuel (there are interesting tracers in a process called "fluorodeoxyglucose-positron emission tomography (FDG-PET)" that can  monitor BAT fuel burning).

Why might some people's brown fat be less thermogenically active than others? Not clear, though these experimenters seemed to see this non-response in about half their participant populations over repeated studies. Can we make our brown fat more effective? Don't know - but if we look at the happy mice story, maybe it would be useful to ask BAT participants about how much mental and physical stimulation they have? 

 Back to Brown Fat and Hot Sauce

Anyway,  turns out that the researchers who showed that some folks have active BAT and others do not also took a look at capsinoids and active/not active brown fat [9]. First, they checked who of the participants had active and non-active brown fat. Then, they gave the groups capsinoids and placebo. Big result:
EE increased by 15.2 ± 2.6 kJ/h in 1 h in the BAT-positive group and by 1.7 ± 3.8 kJ/h in the BAT-negative group after oral ingestion of capsinoids (P < 0.01). Placebo ingestion produced no significant change in either group.
So, folks with active brown fat get a significant thermogenic hit from the stuff in chillies.  Cool.

Take Away: pepping up our food with hot sauce (or -boring - ingesting capsinoids) may be a way to improve thermogenic effect and so burn a bit more fat than without the hot stuff BUT remember - we're complex systems, so no single factor is a solution. We might be of the population whose brown fat isn't particularly thermogenically robust. What this difference *seems* to suggest when coupled with the enriched, engaged mice is that, diverse activities - social and physical and cognitive - does good things for us that simply AMPLIFY the effects of other factors, LIKE capsinoids. Perhaps heating up more than our food with interest, innovation, delight and movement - as well as good nutrition - all make us thermogenically zoomed up, leaner livers?

Related Articles


  1. Carbonelli MG, Di Renzo L, Bigioni M, Di Daniele N, De Lorenzo A, & Fusco MA (2010). Alpha-lipoic acid supplementation: a tool for obesity therapy? Current pharmaceutical design, 16 (7), 840-6 PMID: 20388095  
  2. Koh EH, Lee WJ, Lee SA, Kim EH, Cho EH, Jeong E, Kim DW, Kim MS, Park JY, Park KG, Lee HJ, Lee IK, Lim S, Jang HC, Lee KH, & Lee KU (2011). Effects of alpha-lipoic Acid on body weight in obese subjects. The American journal of medicine, 124 (1), 850-8 PMID: 21187189
  3. Wagner AE, Ernst IM, Birringer M, Sancak O, Barella L, & Rimbach G (2012). A Combination of Lipoic Acid Plus Coenzyme Q10 Induces PGC1α, a Master Switch of Energy Metabolism, Improves Stress Response, and Increases Cellular Glutathione Levels in Cultured C2C12 Skeletal Muscle Cells. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2012 PMID: 22655115
  4. Snitker S, Fujishima Y, Shen H, Ott S, Pi-Sunyer X, Furuhata Y, Sato H, & Takahashi M (2009). Effects of novel capsinoid treatment on fatness and energy metabolism in humans: possible pharmacogenetic implications. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89 (1), 45-50 PMID: 19056576
  5. Galgani JE, Ryan DH, & Ravussin E (2010). Effect of capsinoids on energy metabolism in human subjects. The British journal of nutrition, 103 (1), 38-42 PMID: 19671203
  6. Yoneshiro T, Aita S, Kawai Y, Iwanaga T, & Saito M (2012). Nonpungent capsaicin analogs (capsinoids) increase energy expenditure through the activation of brown adipose tissue in humans. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 95 (4), 845-50 PMID: 22378725
  7. Ouellet V, Labbé SM, Blondin DP, Phoenix S, Guérin B, Haman F, Turcotte EE, Richard D, & Carpentier AC (2012). Brown adipose tissue oxidative metabolism contributes to energy expenditure during acute cold exposure in humans. The Journal of clinical investigation, 122 (2), 545-52 PMID: 22269323
  8. Yoneshiro T, Aita S, Matsushita M, Kameya T, Nakada K, Kawai Y, & Saito M (2011). Brown adipose tissue, whole-body energy expenditure, and thermogenesis in healthy adult men. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 19 (1), 13-6 PMID: 20448535
  9. Yoneshiro T, Aita S, Kawai Y, Iwanaga T, & Saito M (2012). Nonpungent capsaicin analogs (capsinoids) increase energy expenditure through the activation of brown adipose tissue in humans. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 95 (4), 845-50 PMID: 22378725
  10. Cao L, Choi EY, Liu X, Martin A, Wang C, Xu X, & During MJ (2011). White to brown fat phenotypic switch induced by genetic and environmental activation of a hypothalamic-adipocyte axis. Cell metabolism, 14 (3), 324-38 PMID: 21907139

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