Why Sleep Loss Can Make You Gain Belly Fat

Dieting and weight loss has surpassed baseball as America's national pastime. It's estimated that 2/3 of all Americans are officially overweight, and 1/3 are obese. Besides the routine bulges that you see on the outside, the presence of visceral fat (or belly fat)—not the flabby fat under the skin that you can grab—but the fat deep within your abdomen that's attached to your intestines, is thought to increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and in women, breast cancer.

With all the news about the importance of belly fat as a risk factor for heart disease and other medical conditions, it's almost gotten to the point where the press and the lay public perceive belly fat as a cause of all these various medical condition, rather than just an association. The real question is, what causes belly fat to begin with?

The Link Between Stress and Belly Fat

Any type of stress, whether physiologic, or external, can cause dramatic changes in your physiology. The sympathetic nervous system, or the classic fight or flight response, is activated when you're under stress. This in turn diverts blood flow away from less essential body parts and organs, such as your gastrointestinal system, your reproductive organs, your skin and distant extremities. It’s like if you were being chased by a lion—every nerve and fiber of your being will be focused on getting away, not on digesting what you had for lunch.

Although you’re probably not being chased by a lion, any type of prolonged periods of stress which results in low blood flow to the intestines causes biochemical changes that lead to accumulation of belly fat. It's also thought that increased estrogens created by belly fat further suppress the natural progesterone levels in both men and in women, aggravating the vicious cycle even more.

Poor Circulation Can Cause Belly Fat

You don't need a serious medical condition to cause these rapid changes in intestinal blood flow. Even your emotional state, and the various life stresses that you experience every day can significantly affect the rate of blood flow to your stomach and your intestines.

Researchers have found that periods of low oxygen in the intestines can cause biochemical changes that lead to fat accumulation. Is this low oxygen level the result of the standard atherosclerosis that's seen with cardiovascular disease as we get older, or can there be something else? Is there anything else that can cause intestinal hypoxia?

How Your Jaw Size Can Affect Your Waist Size

As I describe in my sleep-breathing paradigm, modern humans have difficulty breathing properly while sleeping at night, especially when on our backs and when in deep sleep, due to muscle relaxation. This is from a slow but significant narrowing of our jaws, due to a major change in our diets and with the addition of other feeding tools, like infant bottles and pacifiers.

The smaller the jaws, the less room there is for the tongue, and the more likely it'll fall back during deep sleep, especially when lying flat and in deep sleep. Depending on how often this tongue collapse obstructs our breathing at night, we all fall somewhere along this continuum, where the end extreme is officially called obstructive sleep apnea. It's not surprising that periods of interrupted breathing, whether very brief or pauses of 10 to 30 seconds (apneas), is known to cause physiologic states of stress.

And this sustained form of stress can in turn, slow down our metabolic rate making it difficult to lose weight if not gain it.

Hormones and Weight Gain

In women, there is yet another major variable that can cause you to gain weight as you get older, and that's the role of diminishing progesterone, which begins during the late 30s and early 40s.

Progesterone is a major upper airway muscles stimulant, which essentially tenses or stiffens the tongue, especially when in deep sleep. This is why as the levels of progesterone diminish during perimenopausal age, women begin not to sleep as well as they did before the onset of menopause. A relative change in a woman's sleep-breathing status can then lead to neurologic symptoms, such as night sweats, hot flashes, weight gain, mood swings, and irritability. Not too surprisingly, these same symptoms can be seen even in young men who are moving up the sleep-breathing continuum. Lack of deep or efficient sleep is a major cause of physiologic stress.

Sleep Your Way to Weight Loss

A recent article in Glamour magazine profiled 7 women who where all slightly overweight, and asked them to do one thing for 4 weeks: sleep more. Without making any other changes, they all loss anywhere from 7 to 21 pounds. Sleeping longer is one way to restore health in our sleep deprived culture, but increasing sleep efficiency while you sleep is another way to increase your energy levels, improve your health, and lose weight more easily.

Not Only Your Breathing Problem

Not being able to breathe well at night while sleeping, and not sleeping long enough are important factors to address, but there are many other factors that also prevent you from achieving the quality sleep that you need: Eating late close to bedtime is a common modern ritual that occurs for a variety of different reasons. Gastric juices still lingering from your last meal (or snack) can be suctioned up into the throat, causing more swelling and inflammation, causing more obstructions and arousals. Drinking alcohol close to bedtime causes your throat muscles to relax more, leading to more frequent obstructions and arousals, as well as louder and more frequent snoring.

The Right Way to Lose Weight

Before you begin that new diet plan, or take advantage of your new gym membership, make sure that you're able to breathe properly at night. If your nose is stuffy for whatever reasons, do everything possible to straighten it out first. If you've had a stuffy nose for years or decades, you may not realize that your nasal breathing is compromised. Proper sleep and lowering your stress levels is critical to getting rid of that excess belly fat.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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3 thoughts on “Why Sleep Loss Can Make You Gain Belly Fat

  1. So often women going through menopause complain of night sweats and hot flashes. It is important to try to find a remedy, hot because of the night sweats, but because the lack of good consistent sleep can cause so many other problems.

  2. Thank you Dr. I never went to medical school. I thought I was silly for wondering if I had a sleep apnea belly. Not to say diet and physical activity is not beneficial for reducing visceral fat but I thought my sleep was hindering my ability to feel up-to having an active lifestyle In the first place. There is not a lot of information today to support what I have often wondered but your information does help me to understand what may possibly be the root of my belly issues.