Examining the benefits of cold exposure as a therapeutic strategy for obesity and type 2 diabetes

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2021 May 1;130(5):1448-1459. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00934.2020. Epub 2021 Mar 25.


The pathogenesis of metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes are characterized by a progressive dysregulation in energy partitioning, often leading to end-organ complications. One emerging approach proposed to target this metabolic dysregulation is the application of mild cold exposure. In healthy individuals, cold exposure can increase energy expenditure and whole body glucose and fatty acid utilization. Repeated exposures can lower fasting glucose and insulin levels and improve dietary fatty acid handling, even in healthy individuals. Despite its apparent therapeutic potential, little is known regarding the effects of cold exposure in populations for which this stimulation could benefit the most. The few studies available have shown that both acute and repeated exposures to the cold can improve insulin sensitivity and reduce fasting glycemia in individuals with type 2 diabetes. However, critical gaps remain in understanding the prolonged effects of repeated cold exposures on glucose regulation and whole body insulin sensitivity in individuals with metabolic syndrome. Much of the metabolic benefits appear to be attributable to the recruitment of shivering skeletal muscles. However, further work is required to determine whether the broader recruitment of skeletal muscles observed during cold exposure can confer metabolic benefits that surpass what has been historically observed from endurance exercise. In addition, although cold exposure offers unique cardiovascular responses for a physiological stimulus that increases energy expenditure, further work is required to determine how acute and repeated cold exposure can impact cardiovascular responses and myocardial function across a broader scope of individuals.

Keywords: cold exposure; obesity; thermal therapy; thermogenesis; type 2 diabetes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cold Temperature
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2*
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Humans
  • Insulin Resistance*
  • Obesity / therapy
  • Shivering
  • Thermogenesis

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