Washington DC: Researchers revealed why you are putting on a lot of weight during the winter months, despite your best efforts to stay slim and trim. While it’s true that during the holiday season you are exposed to high-calorie delicious foods than rest of the year, the reason why you pack on the pounds in winter is surprising – the absence of sunlight. So, you surely have another reason to bask in the sunlight, which is the key to weight loss.
According to scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada, fat cells that lie just beneath our skin are sensitive to sunlight and shrink when exposed to the blue light emitted by the sun. Thus, reduced sunshine in the winter can contribute to weight gain. Read: Why winter is the ‘best’ season for weight loss
“When the sun’s blue light wavelengths – the light we can see with our eye – penetrate our skin and reach the fat cells just beneath, lipid droplets reduce in size and are released out of the cell. In other words, our cells don’t store as much fat,” said Peter Light, senior author of the study.
“If you flip our findings around, the insufficient sunlight exposure we get eight months of the year living in a northern climate may be promoting fat storage and contribute to the typical weight gain some of us have over winter,” he added.
But Light cautions the finding is only an initial observation and that pursuing exposure to sunlight is not a safe or recommended way to lose weight.
“For example, we don’t yet know the intensity and duration of light necessary for this pathway to be activated.”
He, however, added the novel discovery opens up new avenues of future scientific exploration which could someday lead to pharmacological or light-based treatments for obesity and other related health issues such as diabetes.
“Maybe this mechanism contributes to setting the number of fat cells we produce in childhood – thought to stay with us into adulthood,” he speculated.
“Obviously, there is a lot of literature out there suggesting our current generation will be more overweight than their parents and maybe this feeds into the debate about what is healthy sunshine exposure.”
The researchers made the discovery while investigating how to bioengineer fat cells to produce insulin in response to light to help type 1 diabetes patients.
“It was serendipitous,” said Light. “We noticed the reaction in human tissue cells in our negative control experiments, and since there was nothing in the literature, we knew it was important to investigate further.”
Based on the finding, the fat cells we store near our skin may be a peripheral biological clock, said Light.
“Its early days, but it’s not a giant leap to suppose that the light that regulates our circadian rhythm, received through our eyes, may also have the same impact through the fat cells near our skin.”
He explained that the molecular pathway they discovered was first identified as being activated by the eye when exposed to the blue wavelengths of sunlight.
“That’s why you are not supposed to look at digital devices before bed because they emit the same blue light the sun does, that signals us to wake up,” he explained.
“Well, perhaps that pathway – exposure to sunlight that directs our sleep-wake patterns – may also act in a sensory manner, setting the number of fat humans to burn depending on the season. You gain weight in the winter, and then burn it off in the summer.”
This could be an evolutionary process, supported by the fact that unlike many other mammals, our fat is spread out all over our bodies just underneath our skin, he added.
Their findings suggest that some moderate sunbathing may help shrink fat cells that react to the sun.
The research has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.