There are many factors why you can't lose that stubborn belly fat, but one of the most common reasons is lack of sleep. Time and time again someone pokes their belly and asks me "I'm losing weight everywhere except my belly!" despite the training, dietary changes and lack of digestive issues.
"You don't sleep well, do you."
"...No. How did you know?"
I know because your belly told me.
There are studies across the world that show, over time, how damaging a lack of (or too much!) sleep can have on the body, not just physically but mentally as well. In case you're wondering, you should be aiming for 7-8.5 hours of sleep a night.
Sure, no sleep means you're tired and grumpy as hell the next day, but what has it got to do with your belly?
An American study in 2004 found that not sleeping enough means your body has elevated levels of the hormone ghrelin (which makes you feel hungry) and too little of the hormone leptin (which makes you feel full). That means you'll crave after sugary or carby snacks even if you've actually eaten enough. You'll also produce the stress hormone cortisol which has been linked to causing and keeping belly fat. The study also found that subjects who had just five hours of sleep a night saw an increase in their Body Mass Index. Not helpful if you're aiming to lose weight and 'tone up'.
So how do you fix it?
Good sleep will help your metabolism, help your body recover, balance your hormones (including the ones that control your appetite). But easier said than done, right?
1. Force yourself to go to bed
Most of the time, people don't actually have sleeping problems. They are just too lazy to get their butts to bed. Stop instagramming 'til the break of dawn and tell yourself you WILL be inside your bed by a certain time, and stick to it.
2. Don't look at your phone 30 minutes before bed
An hour would be better but I'm trying to be realistic. Stop looking at your phone, don't look at the tv, or any other monitor. Wind down by reading a book or actually talking to someone about their day.
3. Exercise at least 3 times a week
Tired people go to bed.
There are supplements that can help your body unwind and relax, and I'm not talking about sleeping pills. You can try taking a magnesium suppement daily, sipping on chamomile tea before bed, using a lavender mist on your bedsheets, whatever helps you chill. Don't give up on these after a few days either, you will need time to let magnesium do it's thang, and also to train your body to relax.
5. Stop napping
I know people who nap in the afternoon every single day for 3 hours. That's not napping, that's sleeping. It completely disrupts your internal clock, stops you from falling asleep at night, and will even affect the quality of your sleep. If you have to nap, keep it to 30 minutes.
6. Don't drink coffee or tea past 1pm.
Caffeine has been shown to stay in your system for up to 8 hours. That means if you have a coffee at 3pm, it could be affecting your ability to sleep at 11pm. And its effects are significant.
7. Pee before you sleep
Don't drink too much right before you go to bed, because this will just make you wake up to go to the toilet.
To help you ease back into a good sleep cycle, use melatonin to correct your body clock. Don't depend on it though.
9. Stop thinking
I have this problem - my mind races with all the things I have to do the next day/week. I found it helpful to just write a simple 'to do' list in the evening so I feel in control of my tasks. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to complete your errands so you don't feel stressed.
If none of the above seem to work, visit a doctor and try to rule out a sleeping disorder. Sleep and food are the FOUNDATION of your health, and not all of us realise how closely interlinked the two are.
Save your belly - go to bed!
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
PLoS medicine: Taheri, Lin, Austin, Young & Mignot - December 2004