A new study by Mayo Clinic has shown that lack of sleep along with free access to food increases calorie consumption and unhealthy fat accumulation, especially inside the abdomen, according to Science Daily.

The study, funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Lead author Dr. Naima Covassin and her team found that inadequate sleep led to a 9% increase in total belly fat area and an 11% increase in abdominal visceral fat.

Visceral fat, which means the accumulation of the fat deep inside the abdomen and around internal organs, is associated with cardiac and metabolic diseases.

Dr. Virend Somers, the study’s principal investigator, said, “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.”

Dr. Somers directs the Cardiovascular Facility and the Sleep Facility within Mayo Clinic’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science.

He explained, “Normally, fat is preferentially deposited subcutaneously or under the skin. However, inadequate sleep appears to redirect fat to the more dangerous visceral compartment. 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 unrecognized 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 contributor to the epidemics of obesity, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases,” Dr. Somers added.

Dr. Covassin said, “The visceral fat accumulation was only detected by CT scan and would otherwise have been missed, especially since the increase in weight was quite modest – only about a pound.”

“Measures of weight alone would be falsely reassuring in terms of the health consequences of inadequate sleep,” she added. “Also concerning are the potential effects of repeated periods of inadequate sleep in terms of progressive and cumulative increases in visceral fat over several years.”

Dr. Somers said in people who cannot easily avoid sleep disruption, behavioral interventions such as increased exercise and healthy food choices must be considered. However, the researchers said more studies are needed to understand how these findings in healthy young people relate to people who are already obese or have metabolic issues such as diabetes.