JAN 31, 2014 12:00 AM PST

Weight Loss and Fat-Burning Mechanisms

WRITTEN BY: Jen Ellis
Can you lose weight by inducing fat cells to burn other fat cells? That's a little simplistic, but that's the gist of a recent study into mechanisms of weight loss. A research team at Harvard Medical School has discovered that exercise alters some fat cells through release of a specific protein, which indirectly causes them to burn calories.

The study, published recently in Cell Metabolism, looked at the byproducts of a protein known as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor-gamma coactivator (PCG-1alpha). During exercise, PCG-1alpha activates specific genes inside muscle tissue that increase your body's consumption of energy, but it also affects fat cells in an interesting fashion.

Fat has two primary functions in your body-it stores excess calories if your body should need it for times when you are short on calorie consumption, and it releases hormones that control your metabolism. We all have two types of fat in our body-the predominant white adipose tissue known as "white fat," which serves as the storage vessel, and the lesser brown adipose tissue known as "brown fat", that burns calories through metabolic control.

During exercise, PCG-1alpha seems to activate white fat to turn on genes that give it brown fat characteristics. However, the mechanism is not direct, since PCG-1alpha can't venture outside muscle cells. So what molecule is serving as the messenger to the fat cells? The research team studied the byproducts of muscle cells producing PCG-1alpha and found a potentially useful messenger in beta-aminoisobutyric acid, otherwise known as BAIBA. In experiments with mice, BAIBA produced weight loss and better absorption of glucose, thus producing a healthier metabolism.

Now that we have figured out how to produce healthier mice, can we translate this to healthier humans? It appears possible.
The research team looked at blood samples from the Framingham Heart Study, a comprehensive study that has been investigating heart disease and cardiovascular issues for over six decades. This study provided a rich subject pool of over 2000 patients to analyze for correlative factors with BAIBA, and the team was not disappointed in their search. They discovered that low BAIBA levels were common in people with high insulin and cholesterol levels-known risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

A different study provided further evidence of BAIBA's positive effect. In this study, when sedentary people began an exercise program, BAIBA levels in their blood increased by 17%. BAIBA may not be the only molecule causing these effects-there may be other messenger molecules or a synergistic effect with BAIBA and other molecules-but it certainly seems to play a useful role in the fat-burning process and perhaps in cardiovascular health as well.

If the mechanism can be fully understood and characterized for potential side effects, it's possible that BAIBA will be a useful component in drugs to address multiple concerns, from weight control to cardiovascular conditions. In the meantime, the classic solutions work best-a healthy, balanced diet and proper exercise. Let your body's own BAIBA (and other mechanisms) keep you healthy and reduce the need for additives of any kind.
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