You probably think that fat cells are passive blobs that do nothing more than store energy, bloat flabby hips and bellies, and perhaps wear down the body by forcing it to cart around a lot of extra weight.
But new research is fundamentally altering that view: fat cells, over 30 billion of them, are extraordinarily dynamic, complex and influential entities that affect a staggering array of crucial bodily functions.
Instead of sitting idly by, waiting for a famine or a jog, fat cells continuously send dozens of potent chemical signals to tissues throughout the body, including the brain, liver, muscles, reproductive organs and immune system. These chemicals orchestrate a host of activities which may increase our risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and premature death.
In recent studies, evidence has shown that fat tissue -- far from being a dormant storage depot for surplus calories -- is actually an active organ that sends chemical signals to other parts of the body with profound and sometimes harmful effects to your body. Fat seems to have an infinite capacity to make more of itself.
Scientists are reporting discovery of 20 new hormones and other previously unknown substances secreted into the blood by human fat cells. The new findings could pave the way for a better understanding of the role that hormone-secreting fat cells play in heart disease, diabetes and other diseases, in addition to other body-regulating mechanisms.
Among those hormones is leptin, which controls appetite, and adiponectin, which makes the body more sensitive to insulin and controls blood sugar levels.
A further startling discovery is the identification of 80 different proteins produced by the fat cells including six brand new proteins and 20 proteins that have not been previously found in human fat cells. These findings, however, are so new that very little is known about most of these proteins that billions of fat cells in the adult body produce. The new information could pave the way for a better understanding of the role our hormone-secreting, protein producing fat cells play in our physiology.
Let's Address Your Fat Cells
While we are still in the early stages of research, new discoveries and findings make an even more compelling argument for controlling those billions of fat cells in your body. As Gokhan S. Hotamisligil, a professor of genetics and metabolism at the Harvard School of Public Health says, "Many people think your brain controls your fat. We promote the idea that your fat controls your brain."
A Whole Lot of Talking Going On
Fat cells are sending messages to the brain and to each other -- they all play some kind of role. Millions of messages are going back and forth, and we don't know what most of them mean!
"In the old days, people used to think fat tissue was a passive organ," said Rexford S. Ahima, an endocrinologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "Now it's obvious that it makes and secretes more hormones and proteins than probably any other organ. It's at the center of a very complex system. It coordinates how much we eat, how much energy we burn, how the immune system works, how we reproduce."
The pivotal discovery came in 1994, when scientists identified a hormone produced by fat cells that they dubbed leptin. Among other things, leptin tells the brain how much fat is in the body. That raised the hope that it could be used as an anti-obesity drug, but that has yet to pan out. Still, the discovery revealed for the first time a direct communication link between the brain and fat cells.
Scientists also recently discovered that fat tissue is comprised of far more than just fat cells; it is a complex amalgamation that includes key immune system cells called macrophages. Macrophages and fat cells produce powerful substances called tumor necrosis factor-alpha and interleukin-6, which help regulate the immune system. But a surplus of fat cells and macrophages probably triggers unnecessary inflammation, which most likely explains at least part of why obesity increases the risk for so many diseases, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Fat cells also send out signals that cause blood vessels to constrict, raising blood pressure, and make blood clots form, which may explain how obesity increases the risk for heart attack and stroke. At the same time, fat cells emit signals that promote blood vessel and cell growth, which could help explain why obesity increases the risk of cancer.
An average adult's body contains about 27 billion fat cells while an overweight body can contain up to 300 billion fat cells, that's more then 10 times normal. These excess fat cells release too many bad hormones and chemicals, laying the foundation for many of the chronic diseases associated with being overweight.
So What's the Problem?
Many people share the perception that being overweight is unhealthy, but if you ask them to explain why, they just shrug and say it looks unhealthy or is a burden on your joints and heart.
Excess fat cells are implicated in the cause of serious health conditions -- cancer (breast, colon and pancreatic), dementia, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes (Type II), osteoarthritis, metabolic syndrome and sleep apnea to name a few.
The GOOD news is that even losing just 5-10 percent of your extra fat cells will lower your risk for those conditions by up to 60 percent and put you on the road towards healthier body chemistry and a longer life.
Why Do We Have Fat Cells?
Fat cells (adipocytes) do perform some important functions, such as:
1. Generate Warmth
2. Create Protection
3. Provide Storage
4. Regulate Body Functions
5. Smooth Physical Appearance
Up until now, it was believed that the primary role of fat cells was to store energy and secondarily to insulate the body. The stored energy -- in a reserve of lipids -- can be burned to meet your energy needs.
It is only when the number of fat cells increase above healthy levels that they start to have negative effects on our body. The accompanying health costs for Americans is estimated to be over $150 billion annually.
Known Health Risk Details
For those of you who would like some details about the connections between excess fat cells and disease risk, this section is for you. If not, skip to the next section.
A. Cancer: Cancer occurs when cells in one part of your body, such as the colon or mammary glands, grow abnormally or out of control. These "cancerous" cells sometimes spread to other parts of the body. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States.
Excess fat cells produce very high levels of hormones, which increase the risk of breast cancer in women. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that concluded virtually ALL forms of cancer are more common in people with excess fat cells. Fully 14 percent of all cancer deaths in men and 20 percent in women were tied to being overweight.
B. Heart Disease: The link between extra weight and an increased heart attack risk lies in how your body chemically responds to an increased fat intake and to the excess production of certain hormones and proteins by the fat cells.
Normally, the body maintains a steady level of water, carbs, fat and protein, along with vitamins and minerals. A higher overall fat concentration increases cholesterol and triglyceride fats in your bloodstream. This consequence is especially bothersome because HDL cholesterol, a known risk-reducer of heart disease, is replaced by "bad cholesterol." The end result can be heart disease, which can lead to heart attacks.
In addition, excess body fat--especially abdominal fat--may produce substances that cause inflammation. Inflammation in blood vessels and throughout the body may raise heart disease risk. Heart Disease is the number one cause of death in the United States.
C. High Blood Pressure: When you have excess body fat, your body retains sodium. When your body retains sodium, blood volume increases and blood pressure rises. High blood pressure causes your heart to work harder, which is dangerous for your heart and can lead to severe heart problems.
D. Diabetes: Too much body fat, especially in the abdomen, also increases insulin resistance, priming the body for diabetes. Excess fat makes your body resistant to insulin. When your body is resistant to insulin. This leaves an unnecessarily high level of glucose (sugar) in your blood and your cells can't get the energy they need. In essence, the fat is zapping your energy and eventually, the body becomes totally resistant to insulin.
Type 2 diabetes is a disease in which blood sugar levels are above normal and is the most common form of diabetes in the U.S. Diabetes is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
E. Osteoarthritis: Excess weight adds pressure to joints and wears away at the cartilage that protects them.
F. Dementia: Obesity increases the risk of dementia (loss of age appropriate brain function) in general by 42 percent, Alzheimer's by 80 percent and vascular dementia by 73 percent. Recent research shows that the same gene, which predisposes people to obesity, also causes loss of brain tissue and ages the brain faster then normal. Fortunately, shedding the excess fat cells through a low fat diet and regular physical movement can reverse these effects.
G. Inflammation: Research suggests that when the body has an oversupply of fat cells, those cells release too many cytokines. This boosts the body's inflammatory response and causes damage to cells and their DNA. Inflammation is now thought to be a leading cause of heart disease.
Reducing the Number of Those Excess Pesky Fat Cells
You've heard it before, but it simply works:
1. Eat a low fat diet
2. Reduce your caloric intake
3. Structure your day for movement (this doesn't mean going to the gym every day)
The bad news: Excess body fat is ACTIVELY harmful to your health.
The good news: It is a SOLVABLE problem. Just as we once learned cigarette smoking was hazardous to our health, so we are now more fully understanding the hidden price of unhealthy eating. We can take active measures to reduce our unhealthy habits and increasing the quality of a longer life.
Being overweight is a temporary situation that long-term attitudes like discipline, self-control, focused attention and positive thinking can solve.
Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.
In good health,
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2. Calle E. et al. Overweight, Obesity, and Mortality from Cancer: N Engl J Med 2003; 348:1625-1638April 24, 2003
3. M. A. Beydoun, H. A. Beydoun, Y. Wang. Obesity and central obesity as risk factors for incident dementia and its subtypes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews, 2008; 9 (3): 204 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2008.00473
4. Ho, A., et. al. (2010). A commonly carried allele of the obesity-related FTO gene is associated with reduced brain volume in the healthy elderly. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 107: 8404-8409