Weight measurement cartoon

Yet Another Reason You Need a Sunny Getaway

Gaining weight over winter? Don't lay all the blame on those holiday treats. Part of the problem may be a lack of sunshine.


Wondering where all that extra winter weight came from? While it might have been the large holiday meals or the cold and snow keeping you from regular exercise, according to new research from the University of Alberta, there could be one more factor to consider: how often did you sunbathe?

A group of University of Alberta researchers led by Dr. Peter Light (yes, that is his real name) found that a type of fat cell found just under the skin is sensitive to blue light from the sun. When exposed to this light, these cells turn up their metabolism and shrink as they release their fat stores. Conversely, the reduction in light exposure from the shorter days and longer nights of winter might promote excess fat storage leading to winter weight gain. The work was published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.

Light and his colleagues found that the sensitivity of these fat cells to light is mediated by a protein called melanopsin – the same protein that controls our circadian rhythm. They suggest that the light-induced changes in fat homeostasis might represent an evolutionary adaptation, a seasonal rhythm promoting fat storage during the cold winter months and shedding it during the warmer summer months.

Human anatomy lends some support to this hypothesis. Amongst mammals, we’re relatively unique in that a great deal of our fat is stored just beneath our skin – ready for external cues from the sun.

The University of Alberta researchers stress that while these results lend insight into fat cell biology, they don’t yet offer an actionable weight-loss strategy. Nonetheless, their results provide encouraging preliminary evidence that a light-based therapy for metabolic disease is worth investigating.

Maybe next year, your New Year’s resolutions should include a trip to the tropics.

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Steven is a PhD candidate in the department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. He is passionate about CRISPR, computer programming, and science communication. Along with Research2Reality, Steven regularly contributes to the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine as a writer for the Expression.