Visceral fat, also called belly fat, lurks in your abdominal cavity, sharing space with important organs such as the liver, stomach, kidneys, and intestines. This makes you vulnerable to conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Finding ways to thwart the development of visceral fat is therefore vital.

According to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, insufficient sleep can promote visceral fat build-up.

Findings from a randomized controlled crossover study led by Naima Covassin, Ph.D., a cardiovascular medicine researcher at Mayo Clinic, found a lack of sufficient sleep led to a nine percent increase in total abdominal fat area and an 11 percent increase in abdominal visceral fat, compared to control sleep.

“Our findings show that shortened sleep, even in young, healthy and relatively lean subjects, is associated with an increase in calorie intake, a very small increase in weight, and a significant increase in fat accumulation inside the belly,” said Virend Somers, MD, Ph.D., the Alice Sheets Marriott Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, and principal investigator of the study.

Doctor Somers continued: “Normally, fat is preferentially deposited subcutaneously or under the skin. However, the inadequate sleep appears to redirect fat to the more dangerous visceral compartment.

READ MORE: How to lose visceral fat: The foods in your diet to cut down on – ‘Lower your intake’

“Importantly, although during recovery sleep there was a decrease in calorie intake and weight, visceral fat continued to increase.

“This suggests that inadequate sleep is a previously unrecognised trigger for visceral fat deposition, and that catch-up sleep, at least in the short term, does not reverse the visceral fat accumulation. In the long term, these findings implicate inadequate sleep as a a contributor to the epidemics of obesity, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. “

How the researchers gathered their findings

The study cohort consisted of 12 healthy people who were not obese, each spending two 21-day sessions in the inpatient setting.

Participants were randomly assigned to the control (normal sleep) group or restricted sleep group during one session and the opposite during the next session, after a three-month washout period.

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Each group had access to free choice of food throughout the study. Researchers monitored and measured energy intake; energy expenditure; body weight; body composition; fat distribution, including visceral fat or fat inside the belly; and circulating appetite biomarkers.

The first four days were an acclimation period. During this time, all participants were allowed nine hours in bed to sleep. For the following two weeks, the restricted sleep group was allowed four hours of sleep and the control group maintained nine hours.

This was followed by three days and nights of recovery with nine hours in bed for both groups.

The participants consumed more than 300 extra calories per day during sleep restriction, eating approximately 13 percent more protein and 17 percent more fat, compared to the acclimation stage.

Doctor Somers added that behavioral interventions, such as increased exercise and healthy food choices, need to be considered for people who cannot easily avoid sleep disruption, such as shift workers.

More study is needed to determine how these findings in healthy young people relate to people at higher risk, such as those who are already obese, or have metabolic syndrome or diabetes.

Exercise can also land a deadly blow to the belly fat.

“If you are serious about losing belly fat fast, then you need to know the exercises that will help you burn your belly fat more quickly,” says Holland and Barrett.

According to the health body, your focus should be on increasing your physical activity which in turn will build muscle that will dramatically reduce belly fat.

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