Yes!—we now have a great excuse to book a trip to the Caribbean this winter: A study by researchers at the University of Alberta has shown that the fat cells that lie just beneath our skin actually shrink when exposed to the blue light emitted by the sun. The researchers made the discovery while investigating how to bioengineer fat cells to produce insulin in response to light to help Type 1 diabetes patients.
“When the sun’s blue light wavelengths—the light we can see with our eye—penetrate our skin and reach the fat cells just beneath, lipid droplets reduce in size and are released out of the cell. In other words, our cells don’t store as much fat,” explained Peter Light, senior author of the study, who is a professor of pharmacology and the director of the university’s Alberta Diabetes Institute. “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,” he added.
Light (whose name is just a fortuitous coincidence) cautions that the finding is only an initial observation, but he’s optimistic that his team’s discovery will lead to further research on the effects of light on weight, the same way research has examined the effects of light on sleep. “Exposure to sunlight that directs our sleep-wake patterns may also act in a sensory manner, setting the amount of fat humans burn depending on the season,” he said. “You gain weight in the winter, and then burn it off in the summer.”
The team’s findings could some day lead to pharmacological or light-based treatments for obesity and other health problems like diabetes.