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Why Sleep Loss Can Make You Gain Belly Fat

Posted Feb 05 2010 1:15pm

Dieting and weight loss has surpassed baseball as America's national pastime. It's estimated that 2/3 of all Americans are officially overweightand 1/3 are obese. Besides the routine bulges that you see on the outsidethe 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 intestinesis thought to increase your risk of heart diseasediabetesmetabolic syndromehigh blood pressurecolon cancerand in womenbreast cancer.

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

The Link Between Stress and Belly Fat

Any type of stresswhether physiologicor externalcan cause dramatic changes in your physiology. The sympathetic nervous systemor the classic fight or flight responseis activated when you're under stress. This in turn diverts blood flow away from less essential body parts and organssuch as your gastrointestinal systemyour reproductive organsyour 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 awaynot on digesting what you had for lunch.

Although you’re probably not being chased by a lionany 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 womenaggravating 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 stateand 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 olderor 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 paradigmmodern humans have difficulty breathing properly while sleeping at nightespecially when on our backs and when in deep sleepdue to muscle relaxation. This is from a slow but significant narrowing of our jawsdue to a major change in our diets and with the addition of other feeding toolslike infant bottles and pacifiers.

The smaller the jawsthe less room there is for the tongueand the more likely it'll fall back during deep sleepespecially when lying flat and in deep sleep. Depending on how often this tongue collapse obstructs our breathing at nightwe all fall somewhere along this continuumwhere the end extreme is officially called obstructive sleep apnea. It's not surprising that periods of interrupted breathingwhether 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 turnslow down our metabolic rate making it difficult to lose weight if not gain it.

Hormones and Weight Gain

In womenthere is yet another major variable that can cause you to gain weight as you get olderand that's the role of diminishing progesteronewhich begins during the late 30s and early 40s.

Progesterone is a major upper airway muscles stimulantwhich essentially tenses or stiffens the tongueespecially when in deep sleep. This is why as the levels of progesterone diminish during perimenopausal agewomen 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 symptomssuch as night sweatshot flashesweight gainmood swingsand irritability. Not too surprisinglythese 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 overweightand asked them to do one thing for 4 weeks: sleep more. Without making any other changesthey all loss anywhere from 7 to 21 pounds. Sleeping longer is one way to restore health in our sleep deprived culturebut increasing sleep efficiency while you sleep is another way to increase your energy levelsimprove your healthand lose weight more easily.

Not Only Your Breathing Problem

Not being able to breathe well at night while sleepingand not sleeping long enough are important factors to addressbut 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 throatcausing more swelling and inflammationcausing more obstructions and arousals. Drinking alcohol close to bedtime causes your throat muscles to relax moreleading to more frequent obstructions and arousalsas well as louder and more frequent snoring.

The Right Way to Lose Weight

Before you begin that new diet planor take advantage of your new gym membershipmake sure that you're able to breathe properly at night. If your nose is stuffy for whatever reasonsdo everything possible to straighten it out first. If you've had a stuffy nose for years or decadesyou 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.

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