Lack of Sleep Leads to Visceral Fat Creep

By Jacquelyn Scott
Monday, September 26, 2022
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A new study finds sleep deprivation leads to increased caloric intake and visceral fat accumulation, which was only identified via CT scan.

A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology indicates lack of sleep increases calorie consumption and dangerous visceral fat accumulation. When the participants — who were all young, at a healthy weight and relatively healthy — were restricted to four hours of sleep per night, their calorie consumption increased by over 300 calories per day, and their visceral fat increased by a significant 11%, which was only detected during CT scans.

“The very concerning thing is the only reason we found visceral fat data is because we did CT scans of participant’s abdomens,” says Virend K. Somers, MD, PhD, principal investigator of the study and Alice Sheets Marriott Professor of Medicine in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Mayo Clinic. “We wouldn’t have seen it otherwise because the [average] weight accumulation was only half a kilogram, which is a pretty normal variation.”

Dr. Somers says people who aren’t sleeping enough could be adding visceral fat without realizing it, since their weight gain may not necessarily be significant.

“It would be an incomplete and possibly ineffective approach to try to prevent or treat obesity without paying attention to sleep.”
Virend K. Somers, MD, PhD, Alice Sheets Marriott Professor of Medicine in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Mayo Clinic

Catch-up Sleep Doesn’t Help

When participants slept normally for three nights after the deprivation trial, their food intake dropped, but their visceral fat continued to increase.

“Whatever message the body sends to store calories as visceral fat didn’t just disappear when the participants started sleeping [on a normal schedule],” says Dr. Somers. “There’s something about sleep deprivation that changes the way we deposit fat, and we don’t know how long [visceral fat accumulation] lasts after sleep deprivation.”

This finding suggests that measures of weight alone could falsely indicate the health of an individual who is sleep deprived.

Clinical Implications for Primary Care

“Many of the chronic diseases that we see — diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, depression — all of those [diseases] can be attributed, [in] some degree, to obesity,” Dr. Somers says. “It would be an incomplete and possibly ineffective approach to try to prevent or treat obesity without paying attention to sleep.”

If a patient in a primary care or bariatric setting is not sleeping well, it may be harder for them to moderate calorie intake because a lack of sleep creates an unconscious desire to eat more, according to Dr. Somers. Improving sleep duration and quality can help people control their food intake and potentially prevent dangerous fat accumulation.