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Why Sleep Loss Can Make You Gain Belly Fat
Children and weight loss have overtaken baseball as America’s national pastime. It is estimated that 2/3 of all Americans are officially overweight and 1/3 are obese. Aside from the routine bumps you see on the outside, it’s thought to be the presence of visceral fat (or belly fat)—not the flabby fat under the skin that you can grab—but the fat deep in your belly that’s attached to your intestines. increases the 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 the cause of all these various health conditions, not just an association. The real question is what causes belly fat in the first place?
The link between stress and belly fat
Any type of stress, whether physiological or external, can cause dramatic changes in your physiology. The sympathetic nervous system, or the classic fight-or-flight response, is activated when you are stressed. 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 being chased by a lion – every nerve and fiber of your being will be focused on escaping rather than digesting what you had for lunch.
While you probably aren’t being chased by a lion, any prolonged periods of stress that result in poor blood flow to the intestines cause biochemical changes that lead to the accumulation of belly fat. The increased estrogens created by belly fat are also thought to further suppress natural progesterone levels in both men and women, exacerbating 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 you experience on a daily basis can significantly affect the blood flow in the stomach and intestines.
Researchers have found that periods of low oxygen levels in the gut can cause biochemical changes that lead to fat accumulation. Is this low oxygen level a result of the standard atherosclerosis seen in cardiovascular disease as we age, or could it be something else? Is there anything else that can cause gut hypoxia?
How your jaw size can affect your waist size
As I described in my sleep breathing paradigm, modern humans have difficulty breathing properly while sleeping at night, especially when they are on their backs and in deep sleep, due to muscle relaxation. This is due to the slow but significant narrowing of our jaws, due to a major change in our diet and the addition of other feeding tools, such as baby bottles and pacifiers.
The smaller the jaws, the less room there is for the tongue and the more likely it is to fall back during deep sleep, especially when you’re lying flat and in deep sleep. Depending on how often this tongue collapse interferes with our breathing at night, we all fall somewhere along this continuum, where the extreme extreme is officially called obstructive sleep apnea. Not surprisingly, periods of cessation of breathing, whether very brief or pauses of 10 to 30 seconds (apneas), are known to cause physiological states of stress.
And this long-term form of stress can in turn slow down our metabolism making it harder to lose weight if not gain it.
Hormones and weight gain
In women, there’s another big variable that can cause weight gain as you age, and that’s the role of declining progesterone, which begins in the late 30s and early 40s.
Progesterone is the main stimulant of the muscles of the upper respiratory tract, which essentially tenses or stiffens the tongue, especially in deep sleep. This is why as progesterone levels decrease during perimenopause, women begin to sleep less than before the onset of menopause. A relative change in a woman’s sleep and breathing status can lead to neurological symptoms, such as night sweats, hot flashes, weight gain, mood swings and irritability. It’s not too surprising that these same symptoms can be seen even in young men who are progressing along the sleep-breathing continuum. Lack of deep or effective sleep is the main cause of physiological stress.
Sleep your way to weight loss
A recent article in Glamor magazine profiled 7 women who were slightly overweight and asked them to do one thing for 4 weeks: sleep more. Without any other changes, they all lost between 7 and 21 pounds. Getting more sleep is one way to regain health in our sleep-deprived culture, but increasing your sleep efficiency while you sleep is another way to increase your energy levels, improve your health, and lose weight more easily.
Not just your breathing problem
Not being able to breathe at night during sleep and not sleeping long enough are important factors to address, but there are many other factors that also prevent you from getting the quality sleep you need: eating late before bed is a common modern phenomenon, a ritual that arises from a number of different reasons. Gastric juices still lingering from your last meal (or snack) can be sucked into the throat, causing more swelling and inflammation, causing more obstruction and excitement. Consuming alcohol right before going to bed causes a stronger relaxation of the throat muscles, which leads to more frequent gagging and excitement, as well as louder and more frequent snoring.
The right way to lose weight
Before you start a new diet plan or use your new gym membership, make sure you can breathe properly at night. If your nose is blocked for any reason, do what you can to clear it first. If you’ve had a blocked nose for years or decades, you may not realize that your nasal breathing is compromised. Proper sleep and reducing stress levels are key to getting rid of excess belly fat.
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