Lack of sunlight might lead to winter weight gain: Alberta study

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Jan. 10'
Health Matters: Jan. 10
WATCH ABOVE: In Wednesday's edition of Health Matters, Su-Ling Goh talks about research looking into a possible connection between sunlight and weight gain and how a clinical trial may have saved a Spruce Grove woman's life – Jan 10, 2018

While it might be tempting to stay indoors during the cold winter months, a new study out of the University of Alberta suggests doing so might lead to weight gain.

The study released Wednesday shows the fat cells that lie just beneath a person’s skin shrink when exposed to the blue light emitted by the sun.

When the sun’s blue light penetrates a person’s skin, the lipid droplets get smaller and are released from the cell, according to the senior author of the study.

“In other words, our cells don’t store as much fat,” said Peter Light, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Alberta.

“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.”

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Light called the findings “serendipitous” as they were discovered while researching how to bioengineer fat cells to produce insulin in response to light to help Type 1 diabetes patients.

“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.”

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Light cautioned that the findings are only an initial observation and that exposure to sunlight isn’t a safe way to lose weight.

“We don’t yet know the intensity and duration of light necessary for this pathway to be activated.”

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However, Light believes further research could lead to light-based treatments for obesity and other 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 said. “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.

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“Our initial first observation certainly holds many fascinating clues for our team and others around the world to explore.”

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