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Losing Sleep Over Weight Gain: Sleep Deficiency and Increased Visceral Obesity Risk

30 Apr 2023
Sleep deficiency and cardiovascular risk

Sleep deprivation affects more than quality of life; sleep deficiency is linked to morbidity, obesity, and early death.1 Moreover, short-sleep duration may be a factor in obesity.2 Yet, studies exploring this phenomenon are limited in scope and answers, including where the body fat accumulates due to lack of sleep. Visceral fat accumulation is known to be a higher risk factor for adverse cardiovascular (CV) and other health outcomes.3

A recent study from Covassin et al. explored the effects of experimentally induced sleep restriction on energy intake, expenditure, and regional body composition.4 In the in-patient, randomized, controlled, crossover study, healthy, nonobese subjects underwent sleep restriction periods (≤4 hours) versus control sleep (≥9 hours). Participants were allowed free access (ad libitum) to food during the 21-day analysis. Investigators took repeated measures of energy intake and expenditures, body weight and composition, fat distribution, and circulating biomarkers.

Participants Gained Significant Abdominal Visceral Fat During Sleep Deficiency Periods

When exposed to sleep restriction, results show participants consumed more calories (p=0.015) and increased protein (p=0.050) and fat intake (p=0.045). Energy expenditure remained unchanged during the crossover study (all: p>0.16). Participants gained significantly more weight during the sleep restriction periods than during control sleep time.

Although total body fat did not differ between sleep period types (p=0.710), total abdominal fat increased only during sleep restriction (p=0.011) versus control sleep. Both subcutaneous and visceral fat abdominal fat depots significantly increased (p=0.047 and p=0.042, respectively). The study had some limitations: its design could not avoid disrupting participants’ circadian rhythms, which may have influenced the findings. Furthermore, participants could have gained less weight if the study had restricted participants’ access to only high-nutritional food.

Inadequate Sleep Duration May Correlate Significantly with Visceral Fat Weight Gain

This study provided insight into the correlation between insufficient sleep and the potential for accumulated fat, especially abdominal visceral adiposity. Interestingly, the study also showed the practice of weekend “catch-up sleep” did not reverse the increased metabolic risk of sleep deprivation. Therefore, these data confirm the detrimental effects of chronic sleep scarcity potentially causing accumulative abdominal visceral weight gain. Further and more in-depth investigations are warranted.

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Author: Saskia van Tetering


  1. St-Onge MP et al. Sleep duration and quality: impact on lifestyle behaviors and cardiometabolic  Health. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2016;134:e367-e386.
  2. Yin J, Jin X, Shan Z, et al. Relationship of sleep duration with all-cause mortality and  cardiovascular events: a systematic review and dose response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. J Am Heart Assoc. 2017;6:e005947.
  3. Mongraw-Chaffin M, Allison MA, Burke GL, et al. CT-derived body fat distribution and incident cardiovascular disease: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2017;102: 4173–4183.
  4. Covassin N, Singh P, McCrady-Spitzer SK, et al. Effects of Experimental Sleep Restriction on Energy Intake, Energy Expenditure, and Visceral Obesity. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2022;79:1254–1265.


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