We go to great lengths to escape the cold. We insulate our houses with space-age technology, we have remote starters for our cars, we have seat warmers, cup warmers, and even disposable hand warmers. And with good reason. The cold can kill in a matter of hours. We cannot easily create heat in the dark, cold winters that descend upon so much of planet earth, and yet we cannot all live in the tropics, where it is pleasantly warm year-round.
The temperature of the earth is determined by the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth’s surface. During the Arctic winter, the north pole tilts away from the sun. The day is short and sunlight must traverse more and more of the earth’s atmosphere in order to reach the earth’s surface. This scatters light away. The cold temperatures also coincide with storms and cloudy weather, which reflect more light back to space. The result is the incredible cold of the Arctic winter.
The cold can kill in a matter of hours, which is why the dinosaurs are no longer with us. They were wiped out during one of the earth’s many ice ages. We believe an asteroid struck the earth in the Gulf of Mexico, and sent so much soot, ash, and dust into the air that it cooled the earth to the point that the dinosaurs died. They died because they could not generate heat within their bodies, just as reptiles cannot. This is why reptiles are active in the cold and frozen north only during the summer. Go far enough north, and there are no reptiles. The further south you go, the more of these creatures you find.
Mammals, which are warm-blooded, now dominate the earth for this reason, instead of just being convenient snacks for dinosaurs. Mammals, from the mighty bowhead whale, to the majestic polar bear, to the humble (and often haughty) human being, can burn fuel to create heat inside of their mitochondria, but the health of their mitochondria determine how much heat they can produce in this way. A special kind of fat - brown fat - performs this special job. Our brown fat is located primarily over our spines, hips, and in our shoulders. Cold exposure turns on this brown fat. This is how the cold triggers us to burn fat. Plastic surgeons recently realized this, and they created “cool-sculpting.” Cool-sculpting is just an over-priced way of getting what polar bears get every single winter - for free. Doctors are making a fortune off of this simple fact of nature. They conveniently do not mention this to their patients, who end up paying thousands of dollars for this procedure.
At first glance, brown fat is no more interesting than a furnace or stove. It is life’s way of making heat, in the absence of the sun’s heat. Yet appearances can be deceiving. As people become increasingly obese and diabetic, their brown fat disappears. As they age, their brown fat disappears. They become less and less tolerant of the cold. They lose muscle mass, while gaining fat. What happens when people undergo bariatric surgery? Amazingly, their brown fat reappears. The same thing happens in people who diet or exercise to lose weight.
Brown fat is not just a furnace - it is a special organ that life uses to create heat and, perhaps more importantly, water.
Life runs on water. Experiments over the last several decades have revealed that water in living systems is quite different from the water that comes out of your tap. When mitochondria burn fuel to create heat, they also create water. This water is unique, in that it is slightly lighter than the water you get out of your tap.
What could that possibly matter? You might ask. The answer lies in your mitochondria. Your mitochondria like to work with this “light” water. The lighter the water, the better they work. This “light” water is now being investigated as a potential treatment for cancer. What does melatonin do? It helps your mitochondria to eliminate heavy water and to create light water. What does your brown fat do? The mitochondria in brown fat produce as much of this “light” water as they can, so long as you are cold.
This difference in the weight of water has to do with the size of the hydrogen atoms within it. Each molecule of water contains two atoms of hydrogen. Hydrogen comes in two types in nature - light hydrogen and heavy hydrogen, technically known as deuterium. Life has to shuffle protons around its mitochondria and proteins in order to generate energy, and shuffling heavy hydrogen (deuterium) around is much harder than shuffling around light hydrogen. If the light hydrogen atom is a single proton, we might liken it to a golf ball. If light hydrogen is a single golf ball, it is easy for life to send it down the fairway to the hole. Now, imagine that you super-glue a second golf ball to that first golf ball. Life simply cannot move this heavier version of the hydrogen atom around as easily as it can the light version. Try making par with two golf balls that have been glued together. You might as well try to play golf on the moon.
Is it any coincidence that the longest lived mammal on earth is the bowhead whale? Or that, among land mammals, bears are some of the longest lived? And this is despite the harsh conditions that they must endure.
Nature pays attention to the smallest scales of energy and matter. Small changes can, over time, create crippling diseases, and premature death. You don’t need to follow a special diet, exercise plan, take a pill, or undergo bariatric surgery to restore your metabolism. Polar bears, after all, don’t do any of these things during the Arctic winter, and they get results that most people can hardly believe. They lose hundreds of pounds of weight each winter. The same metabolic machinery that polar bears use to do this is lying inside of you, waiting to be turned on by the darkness and the cold of a winter you have never seen.
All of this depends upon your mitochondria. Melatonin rescues our mitochondria from the normal wear and tear of daily life. The cold turns on the mitochondria within our brown fat, to create heat and metabolic water.
Mitochondria have risen from obscurity as the “furnaces” and “powerhouses” of life, to become central to the process of aging. All of the diseases you have learned to fear, or may already suffer from, are linked to mitochondria. This is known as “The Mitochondrial Theory of Aging.”