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THERMOGENESIS AND ICE AGE FAT-STORAGE MECHANISMS



Just in case you hadn't noticed, the Ice Age is finally ending. What's that? You thought the Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago? Well, think again. Things may have warmed up bit in the last 100 centuries, but as far as our genetic makeup and our bodies are concerned, it's still pretty cold out.

During the early Ice Age, food was scarce, especially during the long, cold winters. What you ate during the warm months was reflected during the cold months in the strength of your muscles and your immune system, not to mention your girth. The ability to accumulate food, i.e., wealth, had considerable survival value. A good healthy layer of fat was money in the bank. Not only did it help keep you warm by insulating you, but your cells could also burn it for energy once the food supply dwindled. In this race for survival, to the fattest went the advantage.

Today, at the tail end of the Ice Age, despite the fact that food is now relatively plentiful, many cultures and subcultures still equate health and prosperity with heft. As recently as the turn of the last century, the great and the powerful in this country were also the fat. Think of the paunches on the likes of American presidents like Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, and bankers like J.P Morgan plus hundreds of others. Taft was said to have been so large he had to have a special bathtub installed in the White House.

Recent research shows that burning more fat can be a quite effective way to fool your genes into letting you lose weight without unnaturally restricting your food intake.

The idea that health, wealth, and beauty equals thin is a fairly recent innovation. People once died of diseases of scarcity like starvation, but now they die of diseases of plenty-like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Clearly, we need to find a way to stay thin amidst all this plenty. The obvious way, of course, is simply to eat less. Not so simple, you say, and you're right. To give you some idea of how "not simple" it is, consider the fact that 95% of the people who lose weight by caloric restriction-i.e., not eating when you're hungry-regain it all back within one year. Consider also that much of that weight loss consists of healthy muscle mass, and much of what is regained consists of unhealthy fat. You might have been better off not losing the weight in the first place.

The reason is that when you reduce your caloric intake, you set off a kind of "famine alarm" that shifts your metabolism into "fat-saving mode." That's why dieters usually reach a plateau and can't lose any more weight, and why, after they gain it all back, it's much harder to lose the next time.

The primary regulatory mechanism for thermogenesis can be found in the brain, where it is controlled by the hypothalamus through the release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline.

"Not eating when you're hungry is the ultimate unnatural act," says research scientist Durk Pearson. He points out that your genes are sending you a clear message - basically, "Fill `er up"- that is borne of the hardships of eons ago. Trying to fight your genetic destiny is a little like swimming upstream against a swift current. You may be able to do it, but it takes a lot of effort. It certainly defines what we mean by "unnatural."

NATURAL THERMOGENESIS

While restricting calories won't do you much good, recent research shows that manipulating the other side of the equation, i.e., burning more fat, can be a quite effective way to fool your genes into letting you lose weight without unnaturally restricting your food intake.

The process of burning fat is called thermogenesis (literally, creating heat), and it is one of our most important natural metabolic processes. When you turn up your thermogenic fires, you start burning stored fat at an accelerated rate. Thus, the weight you lose is exclusively from fat, not lean muscle mass. And isn't that what you really want? The primary regulatory mechanism for thermogenesis can be found in the brain, where it is controlled by the hypothalamus through the release of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline. Noradrenaline release and, consequently, thermogenesis, are stimulated by a number of factors, including:

When you're cooking and you want to boil water faster, you simply turn up the heat on the stove. The human body is a little more complex than a stove, and there are no dials you can turn to increase your thermogenic fires. But if you want to fool your Ice Age genes, and lose fat without performing any unnatural acts, 20th century science has found the answer. By turning up the gas, rather than cutting off the fuel, you too can be thin, healthy and powerful, without dieting or hunger.

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