Obesity and thermoregulation

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

3 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Excised fat tissue has a lower thermal conductivity than excised lean tissue. In theory then subcutaneous fat might serve as a barrier to heat loss and influence thermoregulatory abilities. In some aquatic mammals and animals from severely cold habitats subcutaneous adipose tissue has evolved into a continuous sheet that envelopes the organs and acts as a thermal insulation layer. This layer can comprise more than half of the cross-sectional area of the body. In most mammals however, the distribution of fat is less continuous. It has been suggested that in tropical animals this distribution may in fact allow animals to still store energy while not impeding heat loss. Studies of humans immersed in cool water convincingly demonstrate that obesity in humans also serves an insulation function. Humans with obesity cool less rapidly and have to elevate their metabolism less significantly than lean individuals when immersed in water. Although obesity provides an advantage in cold conditions it conversely impedes heat loss and makes obese people susceptible to heat stress more than lean individuals. In small mammals like mice the role of subcutaneous (or intradermal) fat for providing thermal insulation is less clear. In theory variations in thermoregulatory capacity may allow individuals different capabilities to burn off excess consumption. Hence, thermoregulatory variations may cause obesity differences. Thermoregulatory capacity is related to ambient temperature. Yet, levels of obesity are only weakly related to ambient temperature and this effect disappears when confounding factors like poverty and race are taken into account. Hence we conclude that obesity may have a significant impact on thermoregulatory physiology, but the converse is much less likely.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)431-443
Number of pages13
JournalHandbook of clinical neurology
Volume156
Early online date17 Nov 2018
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Keywords

  • obesity
  • fat tissue
  • brown adipose tissue
  • lean tissue
  • cooling rates
  • metabolic rate

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