by Kevin DiDonato, MS, CSCS, CES
Not general sickness like the cold and flu. But we all know we can get sick. Did you know fat cells can also get “sick”? It’s true, and fat cells are the last tissue you would think of.
Adipose tissue, or more commonly known as F-A-T, is considered a major organ, and among other fat tissue like visceral and intra-abdominal, are keys in the development of Diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and other inflammatory diseases. What was once thought of as a storage unit for free fatty acids, new evidence shows fat releases hormones and peptides which are important to maintain proper energy balance.
In fact, fat is now considered an endocrine organ, because of fat’s ability to keep energy balanced by the release of these key hormones.
Researchers also point to intra-abdominal fat and visceral fat as the culprits for complications like heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
But let me get back to how our cells get “sick”!
When we are born, our fat cells are healthy. They are able to take fat in the blood and store it for later use. This is the main responsibilities of fat – storage and release of stored energy (plus release of those key hormones). As we get older, we make choices which can lead to obesity, leading to our fat cells getting sick.
The foods we eat, inactivity, and other factors play a large part in fat tissue’s ability to stay metabolically healthy. That’s right, adipose tissue is metabolically active due to the release of the hormones Leptin and Adiponectin which regulate energy intake, other hormones, and communication between other body parts to let us know we are full. Bad food causes the fat cells to enlarge and become resistant to storing fat. Now this does not happen overnight, but from years of not taking care of ourselves. All the high-fat food and associated Trans-fats consumption leads to inflammation, which is the first step in most disease processes.
How does this happen? Let me explain.
Because of the inability of the cells to store anymore fat, the fat cells release inflammatory peptides and hormones, which begin the disease process. Result: a decrease in beneficial hormones release which increases our sensitivity to insulin, which results in increased disease risk.
These are the hormones which can lead to sick fat cells.
Leptin is a hormone released by fat cells that sends a signal to the hypothalamus telling our brain we are full. Leptin is the regulator in energy intake, signaling the body to stop eating. Now here is the interesting part!
One theory as to why this happens is: Leptin comes in two forms, one bound and one free. Lean people have higher amounts of bound Leptin, while obese individuals have higher free Leptin levels. Researchers think this might lead to Leptin having the inability to reach the brain. Result: obese individuals lack the ability to tell their brain to stop eating!
Adiponectin is a protein which is secreted by fat cells. Similar to Leptin, it has positive effects on obesity. In obese individuals, adiponectin is lower, which favors inflammation. This increases the risk for developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Adiponectin has positive effects on oxidizing and breaking down fatty acids in muscle tissue. This breakdown results in better sensitivity to insulin. Not only does this help insulin resistance, it can also have positive effects on other body structures.
Adiponectin exhibits anti-inflammatory effects on the walls of the arteries and adipose tissue. This helps to utilize fatty acids instead of storing them in other tissue. This means there is less toxic fat, making us more efficient at utilizing insulin, therefore preventing metabolic syndrome.
Obesity is associated with lower levels of Adiponectin than their lean counterparts. Low levels of Adiponectin are associated with increased BMI, body fat mass, fasting insulin, Leptin, and insulin resistance. People who lose weight can increase their Adiponectin levels.
Leptin and Adiponectin are two hormones which help control the way we use and store fat. How? They work together to store fat and keep fat cells healthy.
What Does It All Mean?
What does it all mean? There is a lot of information about these two hormones, but it is really hard to understand how controlling these hormones will help me lose weight.
I hear you loud and clear! So here’s the skinny on these hormones.
I mentioned Leptin above, and how if Leptin is out of whack, you gain more weight. In fact, I also mentioned how obese people have higher levels of Leptin than thin people. But what I failed to mention is how Leptin affects cortisol levels and vice versa.
Cortisol is a stress hormone, and when found in high levels, your body stores more fat. When cortisol levels are high, it leads to Leptin and insulin resistance. Having high levels of cortisol results in increased weight gain, and that extra weight gained around your belly also leads to more cortisol production. It is a vicious cycle!
We aren’t done yet with hormones. We need to talk about insulin resistance and what it is.
The main role of insulin is to take extra sugar out of the blood and use it for energy. The problem is: extra cortisol and fat stores can lead to insulin resistance. And when you are resistant to Insulin, you are also going to be resistant to Leptin. Your body will then try to control your appetite, by making more insulin and Leptin, which only leads to more weight gain, meaning the body is unable to burn food for energy.
“Sick” fat also leads to diabetes through fat accumulation in other organs of the body. Let me explain this in a little more detail…
It comes as no surprise that unmonitored diabetic patients have altered fat cells. Diabetes is a condition where the body becomes resistant to insulin secretion, or the pancreas does not produce insulin, or at least not enough of it. In type II diabetes, the body becomes resistant to insulin so you have higher levels of circulating blood sugar.
In diabetic patients suffering insulin resistance, fat cells cannot store fat because the cells are enlarged and inflamed. This increases fatty acids in the blood, leaving the muscle, liver, and pancreas to store it, which leads to increased insulin resistance.
Excess calories in the diet make the cells bigger, giving it the ability to store more fat. This can also happen with visceral fat. We have known about visceral fat since the 1940s as a bad form of fat. Having more visceral fat leads to metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and possibly diabetes. Both forms, visceral and adipose fat, go through hypertrophy which means they expand and grow to allow for more fat storage.
However, when the body stops storing fat because of some kind of resistance, fat gets stored in other areas, making it toxic to the rest of the body. This toxic fat leads to more complications and can lead to metabolic syndrome.
Proper diet, exercise, and making lifestyle changes can shift sick fat cells toward becoming healthier, normal fat cells in the future.