Fat Nutrition and Body Temperature
Published in Townsend Letter, Feb/Mar 2007

Dear Editor,

A recent female nutrition client in her mid 40s complained of being cold at room temperature. She had recently been diagnosed with crystals in her gall bladder and also complained of memory problems, trouble sleeping, and heavy sweating after moderate exertion.

When a patient reports being cold at room temperature, doctors often suspect a thyroid problem. This makes sense since activation of the thyroid stimulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism, mobilizing fatty acids into the blood from body stores and increasing their metabolism by the cells.  As a nutritionist, I look first to ensure normal dietary fat intake and digestion when a client complains of being cold. 

Long term, malnutrition of fats will stress the thyroid as it tries to maintain normal blood-fat and temperature physiology. Long term, such stress might increase the risk of thyroid exhaustion and hypo-secretion of thyroid hormone. In such case, the hypo-secretion would be more a result of chronic, long-term fat malnutrition rather than the direct cause of symptoms. Extra cortisol and epinephrine might also be secreted by the adrenal glands to augment the mobilization of stored fats into the blood when blood levels are too low.

In my client's case, her husband was a French Chef so I assumed adequate dietary intake of fats. The crystals in her gall bladder suggested problems with digestion and absorption of fats. I thought her sleeping problems and easy sweating might also be related to adrenal stress, her memory problems possibly a result of high blood cortisol.

If her complaints of cold, insomnia, easy sweating, and gall bladder crystals were related to fat maldigestion or absorption, then a logical nutritional approach to improve digestion and absorption of fats might be to supplement the diet with 1) lecithin, an emulsifier of fats and constituent of bile, and 2) pancreatin enzymes providing the fat digesting enzyme lipase to augment digestion and absorption of fats. Following these recommendations, the client reported within 24 hours a marked improvement in sleep, mental function, sweating, and complete relief of being cold. 

I had an experience with fat nutrition and body temperature some 30 years ago. Being a poor ex-student just out of college, I was living at the time on peanut butter sandwiches, dry milk and fruit. One day in August, I was cold despite summer temperatures in the 80s. I turned the thermostat up to 95 but I couldn't get warm. I recalled reading about dietary fats being important for energy and heat, so I fried up a piece of bacon from a housemate and ate it with a piece of bread to sop up the grease. Within an hour, I was so hot I had to open up the house and stand outside to cool off. Even now, my hands and core temperature will get cold if I go too long without eating. After eating something containing fat, I quickly warm up.

With so much media attention on the health risks of excess dietary fat, there may be a risk of nutritional deficiency in some who try to eat exclusively low fat or fat-free, or have problems with digestion or absorption of fats independent of dietary intake.  Before assuming thyroid problems in patients who complain of being cold, a nutritional assessment should be done for adequacy of dietary fat intake, digestion and absorption.  If the problem is related to fat malnutrition, symptoms should improve within an hour of a meal rich in fat or after improving fat digestion.

1. Guyton AC, Hall JE. Textbook of Medical Physiology, Tenth Edition, W. B. Saunders Company, 2000

2. Li G, Cherrier MM, et al. Salivary cortisol and memory function in human aging. Neurobiol Aging. 2005 Nov 3 [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query

3. Nakayama Y, Takahashi T, Radford MH. Cortisol levels and prospective and retrospective memory in humans.
Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2005 Oct 30;26(5) [Epub ahead of print] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query

John W. Cartmell 2007

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