The Biology and Physiology of Obesity

The Biology and Physiology of Obesity

It is a well-known fact that obesity is associated with a number of medical conditions that contribute to a person’s poor health. Once you understand some of the underlying biology and physiology of obesity, understanding why these medical conditions occur more commonly in obese patients will make more sense.

Obesity is much more than just carrying around an extra load of fatty tissue, or adipose tissue, to use the proper medical terminology. Obesity is actually a very complex condition that causes the body to attack itself through a whole host of elaborate physiologic actions and reactions that lead to the injury and even destruction of vital organs, which ultimately lead to failure of the body to maintain its finely tuned balance.

Today, we recognize adipose tissue as a very active component of the endocrine and immune system. It is responsible for the production of numerous chemicals that can have profound effects on the body. When stored in proper balance, the adipose system serves the body well and provides an important survival advantage, but when out of balance, self-destruction through a series of inflammatory reactions can occur.

The cells that store fat are called adipocytes and we find them throughout the body. When food is scarce or if you are on a strict diet, the body is able to use the fat stored in these adipocytes for energy. It is because of these adipocytes that we can survive days without food. The problem we face today is quite the opposite however. Food is abundant! When we consume more food (energy) than we burn in a day, that food is stored in the body as fat. Given the abundance of food and our largely sedentary lifestyles, the excess energy consumption can lead to obesity.

To avoid obesity, just eat less and exercise more. If only it were that simple. Have you ever noticed that there are some people who can eat whatever they want and never gain a pound and then there are others who seem to gain weight by just looking at food? There is some scientific evidence to support the fact that some people are more predisposed to gaining weight than others are, and the problem may lie in our genetic code.

Studies involving specially bred mice may give some insight into what happens in humans. This colony of mice carries a recessive gene mutation, which prevents the mice from producing an important hormone called leptin. Leptin is produced by fat cells (among other places) which regulate the amount of fat stored in the body. It acts to suppress the appetite center of the brain and to increase metabolism (energy expenditure) when fat storage within the adipocytes reaches a certain level. Without this hormone, these mice continue to eat and become severely obese.

While leptin is an important hormone for decreasing appetite and increasing metabolism, ghrelin is a hormone with the opposite effect. Ghrelin is produced in the stomach and acts to stimulate the appetite center of the brain and it causes a decrease in metabolism.

As soon as you decide to go on a diet, regardless of how much will and determination you start with, once you start depriving yourself of food and losing weight, your body’s survival mechanisms go to work. Ghrelin levels go up, thus stimulating your appetite and slowing down your metabolism. Leptin levels fall, thus increasing appetite and slowing down metabolism. Ghrelin and leptin finally reach a critical level that your willpower alone cannot overcome and you abandon your diet. This leads to the yo-yo effect, whereby you lose 30 pounds only to put back on 35.

As I mentioned earlier, the adipose system is a much more complex system than simply a storage system for fat. Various chemicals that regulate hunger and energy expenditure, blood pressure, glucose control, and even fertility can be found within the adipose system.

Fat is an important component of a healthy body. Besides acting as a reserve energy source, the physical protection as insulation from the cold, and as a buffer against blunt trauma, makes fat something that should not be demonized. Too much fat however, and fat in the wrong places can cause serious problems.

The fat that lies under the skin, in the subcutaneous tissue, is not really a big problem. The real problem from a health perspective comes when this fat accumulates inside the abdomen or in places where it isn’t normally found in large quantities, like the liver, heart, and pancreas.

As fat accumulates inside the abdomen, the adipocytes enlarge and begin to take up more and more space creating an increase in pressure within the abdominal cavity. The mass of the tissue and the increased pressure it creates can lead to a decrease in oxygen delivery to the cells. This lack of oxygen can cause the adipose tissue to release various chemicals and biological triggers, resulting in a chronic inflammatory state that has detrimental effects throughout the body.

On the other hand, the inflammatory response is the body’s immune defense system that protects the body from invading bacteria, viruses, or other foreign material that pose a danger. Inflammatory cells and chemicals are like the body’s army defense system, efficiently and effectively isolating and killing invading organisms. When too much fat accumulates within the abdomen, a mutiny of sorts occurs, and the inflammatory defense system turns on the body itself. This chronic inflammatory response attacks blood vessels and vital organs resulting in damage to blood vessels and vital organs. This leads to the chronic medical conditions associated with obesity.

A great deal more research is needed to understand the full effects of obesity resulting from this inflammatory process, but for now, sufficient evidence exists to explain the detrimental effects of obesity are more than simply the presence of too much fat deposited in the body. The adipose system is a complex endocrine and immunologic system that has tremendous influence on the overall health of the body.


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2 Comments
  • Dawn green
    Posted at 21:45h, 13 September Reply

    I would like to attend a seminar

    • dustinstorm
      Posted at 22:47h, 13 September Reply

      Hi Dawn! You can find upcoming seminars HERE.

      We also suggest speaking with Carla, and you can set that up HERE.

      Thank you!

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