Sleep Disorders

Updated 01 October 2019

Sleep deprivation isn't just bad for your brain - it also alters your fat metabolism

Lack of sleep has been known to lead to a number of chronic conditions, and a new study has found yet another reason to make good quality sleep a priority.

If you’re getting anything under the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night, it could lead to several chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, and put you at risk for obesity.

A previous Health24 article notes that sleep deprivation can also affect the digestive system and immune system, and that "catch-up" sleep on the weekend does not reverse the effects on your metabolism.

A new study now adds to the evidence of the harmful effects of lack of sleep on our health. 

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University report that just a few days of sleep deprivation had made participants feel less full after eating. More than this, it caused the fat in their food to metabolise differently.

Restricting participants' sleep

While many existing studies focus on lack of sleep’s effects on glucose metabolism and its link to diabetes, there are only a handful that have assessed digestion of lipids from food.

The study, published in the Journal of Lipid Research, had 15 healthy men in their 20s checked into a sleep lab for ten nights. This was after they had spent a week getting plenty of sleep at home. For five of the ten nights, participants spent no more than five hours in bed each night.

Sleep deprivation affects fat metabolism

Participants received a standardised high-fat dinner which consisted of a bowl of chilli mac after four nights of sleep restriction. This was to assess whether an uncomfortable schedule could affect their metabolism.

“It was very palatable – none of our subjects had trouble finishing it – but very calorically dense,” said Kelly Ness, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington who ran the study.

Researchers found that most participants felt less satisfied after eating the same rich meal while sleep deprived than when they had eaten it well-rested.

Insight into digestion

Participants’ blood samples were also analysed. It was found that that sleep restriction led to a faster clearance of lipids from the blood after a meal. This could predispose people to put on weight. 

“The lipids weren’t evaporating – they were being stored,” explained Orfeu Buxton, professor at Penn State and a senior author of the study.

Although the study has its limitations in that it was highly controlled and focused on healthy young people, it gives worthwhile insight into digestion, said Ness.

Bottom line: if you’re watching your weight, make sure you get enough shuteye.  

Image: iStock


Ask the Expert

Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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