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Air pollution and obesity

The link between air pollution, cell inflammation and obesity

Inhaling automobile and diesel exhaust alters signals generated and received by the fat cells, which can cause these cells to grow 12 to 25 percent larger in size or even increase in number

Researchers from the University of North Texas (UNT) have found that exposure to certain air pollutants may cause weight gain, especially when coupled with a high-fat diet. Associate professor Amie Lund and colleagues are investigating how pollution from automobile exhaust affects the growth and signalling of fat cells called adipocytes. They concluded that car exhaust can trigger responses in the body that can lead to increased adipocyte growth and inflammation, which are associated with obesity and cardiovascular disease.

"When people think of the root causes of obesity they often think of genetics and diet," said Lund. "But, there are external factors, such as environmental pollutants, that stress the systems of our body constantly and may play a role in contributing to diseases like obesity."

Amie Lund (Credit: UNT)

Inhaling automobile and diesel exhaust alters signals generated and received by the fat cells. This can cause these cells to grow 12 to 25 percent larger in size or even increase in number, according to Lund's research.

"Cells in the body talk," she explained. "The signals sent and received govern the basic activity of cells in the organ systems of the body. These signals are chemicals, and like all forms of communication, they can be distorted."

Changes in the cells also promote inflammation, increased lipid storage and activation of the immune system. The inflammation and immune response can then trigger further fat cell production causing a feedback loop where the two systems keep nudging the other forward.

"When we learn something like this we always rush to the 'what pill can we take to fix this' step. But in this case, it is not that simple."

The human body already has several systems in place to help maintain healthy organs. But, sometimes, external stressors will unbalance the system. In that case, she said less exposure would be a good idea. She added that it's best to limit the time spent outdoors on days of high levels of air pollution (or low air quality).

"We should be aware that exercising outside during poor air quality days, or in the vicinity of high levels of traffic-generated air pollutants, can increase our exposure to these pollutants because of the increased rate of respiration that occurs during exercise," added Lund.

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