Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Mar

Poor Sleep May Make You (and Your Liver) Fat

Ah, sleep. Nothing like a good dose of the stuff, right? Losing even a single wink of your usual forty (or an hour, as the case may be) is enough to throw off an entire day.

But do you know who might love sleep more than anyone or anything? Our livers.

Yes, livers. Those fleshy multivitamins with an apparent propensity for fat accumulation function best on a good night’s sleep. New research is revealing exactly why shift workers and other chronically sleep deprived members of mankind tend to have problems with obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, and all the other popular features of metabolic syndrome: their livers aren’t processing fat efficiently, instead allowing fat to accumulate.

Normally, teams of molecules are dispatched to the liver during the day to reduce (the totally normal) fat accumulation that occurred during the night. The teams primarily comprise two molecules, rev-erb and HDAC3, which work together to break down the liver fat. These are the day shift workers; they follow the circadian rhythm. When we don’t sleep, our circadian rhythms are disrupted. The day workers don’t show up to work at the hepatic lipid processing plant, and all the fat that accumulated during the night just sits and sits and piles up. When the workers finally return, far too much fat has built up for the teams to handle. They’re up to their neurons in it. Personally, I blame rev-erb. He’s the one with the car. He’s the one who’s supposed to drive the rest to work. HDAC3 is probably waiting on the curb, thermos and lunch pail in hand, ready to start clearing out fat, while rev-erb’s just sleeping in. Ah well – can’t really blame the workers. You have to look at the system.

Some suggest enacting a bill that removes collective bargaining rights from and reduces health benefits for hepatic lipid processing workers’ unions. I think a more prudent (and effective) approach would be to just get to bed at a reasonable time, maybe by minimizing light exposure a couple hours before sleep. For shift workers with metabolic issues who have no choice (which is, sadly, most of them) but to work those hours, the lab group is looking into whether timing the administration of drugs according to normal circadian liver metabolism would help.

All in all, this is further evidence that many (if not most) of our metabolic issues stem from liver dysfunction.

And now for something completely different. This is a totally unrelated paper but an interesting one. It presents a link between genius (IQs of 130 or greater) and prenatal exposure to higher levels of testosterone. Just as the preponderance or lack of various hormones and chemicals in utero can lead to defects or deficiencies, these researchers are proposing that the opposite can happen. Seems reasonable. But wait – before you budding parents start cycling anabolics, use a little caution. There are also links between high testosterone in the womb and autism or autism-like symptoms, and some researchers are deeming these links quite robust. I wonder if there are safe ways to fiddle with prenatal hormone exposure. Probably not.

How does a poor night’s sleep affect your metabolic health? Do you feel the acute effects right away, or do you need to get poor sleep for an extended period of time before it starts to hit you? Also, would you consider playing around with hormone levels in the womb if it meant your kid might turn out to be a genius? Let me know in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Great information once again Sensei. :)

    Seriously, “get sleep” has been one of my most pleasant additions since going primal back on Jan 1. And coincidently enough, there’s a nice info-graphic over at

    Thanks again Mark. Serendipity is as Serendipity does.


    Michael wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • Thanks so much for this Michael. Those sleep statistics for hours per night are amazing!

      Kyle wrote on March 16th, 2011
  2. One thing I’ve noticed with poor sleep is that intermittent fasting becomes less of a clear-headed pleasure, and more of a pain in the gut that makes me grumpy! I guarantee there’s a link there. Even one night of bad sleep, and I’m hungrier the next day.

    Hormones to make a genius kid? Um, I wouldn’t bother. I’d just (hopefully) have a wife who’s hormones were spot on from a PB lifestyle!

    Graham wrote on March 14th, 2011
  3. Does this mean that active mothers may have a greater chance of having a genius child? Is this the level of testosterone increase that the paper may be referring to? What are other natural ways the baby would see increased testosterone levels?

    Laurie wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • I exercised during my pregnancy but not overly so. I ate healthy and did reduce meat. I craved avocados and sticky white rice with a Japanese sauce on it, and I went swimming a lot.
      My daughter was born with an extremely high IQ. We were told she had Aspergers (on Autism Spectrum) around age 15. She tested out of high school when it was determined she was too smart for high school. In her sophomore year she tested at the 18th grade level (2nd year of Masters Degree level). By age 22 another psychiatrist believed that diagnosis of Autism/Aspergers was inaccurate. He believed she was just a very gifted person and tested her for Aspergers and high IQ.
      The IQ tests could not determine her intelligence because they could not test over an IQ of 135. She was showing three standard deviations above the norm (at least) in IQ. Her Aspergers still continued to show up as slightly there. Which maybe goes hand in hand with high IQ.
      As far as I know, I may have been on supplements that increased testosterone during the first three or four weeks of my pregnancy considering at the time I was quite into working out and did get free supplements since I worked for a company that manufactured body building supplements. But as soon as I realized I was pregnant I immediately stopped taking supplements. I didn’t do steroids or any of that… I was too health conscious…
      My daughter is smart and very loving and beautiful. She continually amazes me with what a gentle nature she has. She lovingly holds spiders and puts them outside. She thinks all life is precious and has a hard time even killing bugs.

      Rhonda Dee Lillie wrote on October 27th, 2015
  4. I work with shelter cats and hepatic lipidosis is a always a worry/concern for us because cats go anorexic when stressed. I am wondering if, in addition, we fight an uphill battle because cats also don’t have normal, healthy sleep patterns in the shelter environment due to stress, additional noise, light, etc..

    I am sure this has not been at all studied in cats, but I would be curious…

    ObligateCarnivore wrote on March 14th, 2011
  5. Shift worker here. Lack of sleep effects my willpower in the negative too.

    Glenn wrote on March 14th, 2011
  6. I always get worried when I hear these things…. my sleep schedule is a bit messed up, I have to get up at 5am for work so I don’t always get my 8 hours. I try to at least get more than 6 every night, if I am lucky I get 8 but usually it is 7.5 hours. Of course then there are nights like last night, the Sunday after DST, when I couldn’t fall asleep until midnight…. brutal.

    Mary wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • You may be in luck! Not everyone needs 8 hours essentially. It’s about getting the right about of sleep for your body. Essentially this is more time spent in deep-wave and REM sleep. There are iphone apps now that can help you monitor the amount of REM sleep you are getting so you can better plan when to go to sleep and when to wake up etc.

      Jordan Brown wrote on March 15th, 2011
  7. I know one effect which clearly underlines the hypothesis of this post:

    I’m a collegue student and I had to learn for one whole night for an exam, so literally no sleep there. I did take a nap in the afternoon, but the impact of not getting any night sleep got to me in the evening when we celebrated: Just a couple of beers and I was hammered. It usually takes a lot more for me than that.

    Silvio wrote on March 14th, 2011
  8. Lucky me, all of the foods my mom craved while pregnant with me raise testosterone. That explains my intelligence… And my antisocial personality.

    Alex Good wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • Good point Alex. IQ is a good measure of some parts of intelligence, but not other parts. I know EQ is more and more becoming a corporate buzz word, but really, social skills and being able to effectively relate to human-kind is very important as well. In some cases, more important.

      There is a friend of my family whose kid is doing his Ph.D at MIT, I think he got his undergrad with an overall avreage of 98%. But trying to have a conversation with the guy? Impossible.

      I do think these effects are more pronouced in the male gender, just from my observations… I could be wrong.

      Caitlin wrote on March 14th, 2011
      • There’s a reason that autism is sometimes referred to as “the extreme male brain”…

        Joe Wigley wrote on March 14th, 2011
      • Asperger’s, which is on the autism spectrum, has a higher incidence in the gifted population than in the normal population.

        AlyieCat wrote on March 15th, 2011
  9. It makes so much sense that lack of sleep could cause problems with the liver when you look at the effect it has on hormones. In working with clients, they can have diet, exercise, supplements and all other factors in the right place and without enough quality sleep, they simply will not get better.
    I notice this connection especially in clients struggling with infertility. The lack of sleep seems to feed low progesterone, and raise cortisol, which makes ovulation almost impossible in some.

    Katie @ Wellness Mama wrote on March 14th, 2011
  10. I have three beautiful children, and my first
    born has Autism. While pregnant with him, I
    was very active. I also slept horribly since I
    contracted the worst case of the the flu which
    led me to cough all night long for the first five
    months of the pregnancy. My son is
    exceptionally intelligent but also socially

    Sabrina wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • So are you saying you think your sleep pattern during pregnancy is related to the autism?

      Jenny wrote on March 14th, 2011
  11. When I am on a midnight shift I go without sleep about 2 nights/days a week. A month of that and I am a wreck. I bet my liver is chubby.

    Glenn wrote on March 14th, 2011
  12. I wonder how much of this is directly related to the sleep itself, and how much is due to the sort of enforced-IF for however many hours of sleep you happen to get.

    In other words — is it the enforced break from digestion that makes your liver happy? Or the actual sleep? (probably both.)

    Jenny wrote on March 14th, 2011
  13. Testosterone during pregnancy can also be increased by stress. In addition to producing more “right-brained” individuals, it is also linked to increased incidence of homosexuality – both male and female, I believe. Not a problem as far as I’m concerned, but the autism connection should give one pause before tinkering with one’s hormones in the hopes of producing a “genius.” It also may cause an increased tendency toward allergy.

    Helen wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • Just thought id chime in, since this hit home for me a lil.

      I wouldnt call myself proof of all this, but i definitely fit the statistic.

      My IQ has been tested between 158-164, 4 different tests. One of them through Mensa. Im left handed. Tallest in my immediate family @ 6’4″. Im social, but usually only in familiar groups…because they understand me and i dont feel awkward. Hetero too, so please dudes, dont email me. I get hit on more by men than women, its frustrating to say the very least.

      Very interesting reading, made a lot of things make sense.

      Shawn wrote on March 16th, 2011
  14. I work 5pm to 3am and change shifts quite regularly. I don’t find that I have a hard time sleeping. Even when I’m sleeping 9am to 5pm, shutting the curtains and having the house to myself keeps me sleeping like a baby. Get a routine and you can adjust (well, *I* can adjust) to odd hours no problem.

    PredPilot wrote on March 14th, 2011
  15. My big problem when I get very little shut eye is I tend to become very sloppy with my diet. Which I am always very careful for 6 days of the week and then I have my one day “cheat” day. So bad sleep for me usually equals bad diet.

    This is why I am careful to get my 8 hour quota, otherwise my I set myself back slightly on my health goals and I spend the day being a grumbling mess, it’s not pretty :)

    Alex "Dude Where's My Muscle" Siddy wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • Exactly.

      Poor sleep = Sloppy diet + caffeine cravings + carb cravings + not wanting to work out

      It’s just a big mess unless I can sneak in a nap.

      Danielle wrote on March 14th, 2011
      • Well said, the caffeine cravings are another terror that comes out to scare me when I have poor sleep.

        The afternoon nap can definitely be the saviour to help pull me out of the lack of sleep madness.

        Alex "Dude Where's My Muscle" Siddy wrote on March 14th, 2011
  16. Even small shifts in sleep like DST completely mess me up. I’m a zombie today. A hungry zombie that wants to eat everything in it’s path. Curse the girlscout cookies in the breakroom 8ft away!

    musajen wrote on March 14th, 2011
  17. I actually feel groggy if I get 8 or more hours of sleep. 6-7 hours is right in the wheelhouse for me. I am one of those people who, five steps after getting out of bed, is WIDE awake.

    Mike wrote on March 14th, 2011
  18. If I lose around 30-1hr of sleep in one night my whole day and even the next day is thrown way off. I am super cranky and will almost always make poor eating choices and lay around most of the day! People use to make fun of me for “needing” 8 hours of sleep each night to be normal! Now I know its scientific!

    And NO I would never ever play around with my pregnancy’s! EVER! The fact that I have gone Primal now has so much to do with having babies and making sure that my hormone levels are normal for me! My kids will be who they are without me messing around with hormones and crap food! :)

    The Real Food Mama wrote on March 14th, 2011
  19. Appropriate that I come online and read this today, when Ive only had about 45 minutes sleep today. Wonderful false alarm contractions kept me up all night thinking I was going to have to head to the hospital. Oh well. Maybe I’ll get a nap in today and an early night.

    Earthspirit wrote on March 14th, 2011
  20. … so a bit of ancient TCM (traditional chinese medicine) further validated – getting to sleep before midnight – “an hour before midnight is worth 2 after…” circadian rhythm’s and all considered.

    as i have gotten a bit older, i have very pronounced experiences with this – as long as i get down before midnight, even 6 hours is cool – after midnight – groggy the next day almost without exception (that means 3 cups of coffee instead of just one… what to do?)

    DaiaRavi wrote on March 14th, 2011
  21. For years I’ve had a strict sleep schedule. In the last few months I’ve been dealing with double frozen shoulder syndrome and the GP’s sleep solution is prescription strength codeine. Does’nt work worth squat. Add one new arrival in the form of husbands’ oldest child who bangs around the house at all hours and throw in not being able to sleep comfortably and I am one hot mess. Cranky cranky cranky.

    Shelli wrote on March 14th, 2011
  22. Cool article, I have a question though that some people might relate to:

    If someone is staying up late, say to 3:00 or 4:00 AM in the morning and they still get 7 to 8 hour of sleep, is their circadian rhythm disrupted? Does the health of liver depend on following daylight, or is it more reflective of just getting an adequate amount of sleep?

    I’ve tried sleeping a dark room and it lets me sleep comfortably into the day when normally the sun would wake me up. How do the liver molecules handle this?

    Nicky Spur wrote on March 14th, 2011
  23. I definitely would NOT mess with hormone levels while pregnant. The more natural, the better. I don’t believe in fiddling with nature. If I’m going to have a genius kid, then it’s going to happen all by itself. People trying to bio-engineer their children and future generations are probably setting us up for failure. We came to this earth through natural selection, and us trying to fiddle with it can only end in disaster.

    Monica wrote on March 14th, 2011
  24. So what are the implications of this for a high fat diet in populations with chronic insomnia or circadian rhythm disorders?

    As for the other story, after DES, we should know better than to go tinkering with hormones to optimize pregnancy outcomes. Healthy mom, healthy baby. That’s your best bet.

    em wrote on March 14th, 2011
  25. My youngest child was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes three years ago. Since then, my stress level has been constantly elevated, sleep is in periods of 2-4 hours at best (need to check the kiddo’s blood sugar at night), my fasting blood sugar is approaching type 2, pre-diabetic levels, my blood pressure is elevated and I’ve put on 40 lbs.

    Mark’s summary of the research is real, folks – and I’m its poster child.

    Poster Child wrote on March 14th, 2011
  26. Well, I sleep from 4:30am/5:00am to 11:30am. Is this sleep pattern (which I have no choice) problematic? That has been my sleep pattern for a long time, and I have not witness any side affects (even after switching to the PB more than a year ago).

    Zed wrote on March 14th, 2011
  27. The research regarding fetal exposure to high testosterone is fascinating. On a purely observational note, individuals I know with genius-high IQs often have autistic tendencies–inability to read facial/body expressions, inability to empathize or appropriately express emotions as well as other segments of society. (Caitlyn alluded to this earlier in the thread.) I wonder if high IQ is correlated with autistic symptoms? I would bet on it, though I have no study to back it up.

    Leila wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • You seem to be describing Asperger’s Syndrome, usually described as a mild form of autism, which is correlated with above average intelligenc, yes. Autism is a spectrum disorder. Individuals affected by autism run from “introverted” to Rainman to completely non-verbal. Temple Grandin has written a couple books that give a first-hand account of life as a high-functioning autistic.

      em wrote on March 14th, 2011
  28. I feel like a champion when I sleep right. I feel like death when I do not (just one night is enough).

    That’s all the evidence I need to make me love getting to bed early.

    gnataxela wrote on March 14th, 2011
  29. I have chronic insomnia, which affects my productivity, memory, safe driving ability, mood, etc., etc..

    The Primal diet helps me cope; without it things are even worse.

    Even on the weekend, I can’t get to sleep or even sleep in. Had 4 hours last night, came to work…arghgh.

    Will give light therapy and my orange lenses another try.

    Wish I COULD just take a sleeping pill every night, but don’t want to, plus I don’t think Dr would let me. (have tried melatonin, GABA, l-theanine, valerian, magensium, etc., etc.) 5-HTP works, but gives me odd chest pains. Even working out hard doesn’t make a difference. Any ideas?

    I’ve been doing all the sleep hygiene stuff for years too: blackout shades, no caffeine, earplugs, comfy bed, cool temp in room, etc.

    Insomnia is a curse. It’s like you’re never fully awake, and never deeply asleep. You lose your grasp of detail and your creativity. SUCKS.

    Anne wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • I feel for you. Check your hormones. It turns out I was progesterone deficient (which explained… a lot), so I’ve been supplementing. My sleep is still disordered, but the progesterone has helped a lot. Also, I don’t get PMS and basically ended a history of depression beginning at the age of 8.

      I also take a medical grade melatonin. It’s not Ambien (which actually had zero effect on me), but it really does promote sleepiness (and vivid dreams).

      At this point, I’m looking at frank metabolic syndrome (PCOS, hyperinsulinemia, obesity). I’m hoping that as I get my insulin normalized, the secondary hormonal systems and sleep will straighten themselves out. In the meantime, I supplement.

      em wrote on March 14th, 2011
    • 5-HTP is a staple of the drug using community because it helps replenish your serotonin, but even without your storage being drained, it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy :) Added benefit is that it makes you dream really weird things – which I like – or even sometimes helps give you lucid dreams!

      My personal battle with insomnia is most of the time won by being extra active during the day. Instead of sitting behind the computer all day (I’m a musician, it happens) doing some sports, going out and doing anything really, something social even, helps a lot to get me a little more tired!

      Angelo wrote on March 15th, 2011
    • Bake up some primal brownies with a little cannabis and you will sleep like a baby. Im sure grok tried it.

      jack wrote on March 15th, 2011
  30. I definitely see a difference when I do not get enough sleep. My weight loss and energy goals are off quite a bit. Good article!

    JW | Natural Mana wrote on March 14th, 2011
  31. I started a 30 day paleo challenge 30 days ago and just about ever since I started it I have been waking up very early around 5 am ro so. I try to fall back asleep for another hour or 2 but its choppy sleep at best.

    But, I have not really felt tired and my energy has increased. My conclusion – Eat primal/paleo, live primal/paleo and you will require less sleep. Thus your chances of fat loss increase even more. How about that!

    Primal Toad wrote on March 14th, 2011
  32. When I was flying freight (low ball job) I was getting 4hrs of sleep at home and 4 in the pilot lounge. I was only able to not gain weight by just sleeping instead of eating. And when hormones would screw with me, I might miss my sleep at home and would struggle in a noisy pilot lounge. I slept in a plane a few times just because was easier to sleep through airplane noise than people and tv’s lol.
    I can often handle an off day of less sleep, but consecutive days really throw me off. But I still tend ton awaken with the sun even on nights of less sleep. Was frustrating in Europe till I adapted.

    Tamara wrote on March 14th, 2011
  33. I totally agree! you def need to get your rest! if i dont get minimum 8-9 hours i feel like blahh..
    btw ,i just started a blog too.. hopefully you can pay me a visit as well! Im looking to make some friends in the fitness blogging community ;] it’s still in it’s begining stages but be sure to take a look ‘;]

    Em wrote on March 14th, 2011
  34. WOW! I am a flight attendant, just put in for a trip trade/drop due to the all-night flying, felt a little guilty…and you solved the problem (guilt) by posting this article. Now when folks ask why I do not do international trips, I will have a GREAT excuse…”It’s fattening!” I just feel all better all under now.

    Cj wrote on March 14th, 2011
  35. I felt helpless, frustrated, miserable as my weight creeped up 5-8# a year during several years when I rarely ever got more than four hours sleep a night. The levels of stress, hormonal changes, and the constant struggle with my weight were physically awful, even while my personal life was very happy and all would have been wonderful except I couldn’t control the weight gain. A perfect storm for getting fat!

    Digby wrote on March 14th, 2011
  36. lol…Monty Python…nice Mark…

    oh yeah, sleep is great. and so are livers. my nephew is autistic and a musical genius. he’s 6 and plays like 8 instruments.

    daniel wrote on March 14th, 2011
  37. Aww. The image above is pretty much a reflection of me right now.

    MaloryVon wrote on March 14th, 2011
  38. I work 12 hour shifts, mixed days and nights and I also have mild narcolepsy (non-medicated). It heavily contributes to why I’m having trouble staying healthy and in line with the PB. Between sleep deprivation and 14 hr work days I’m either too tired to feed myself, or too tired to always ensure I’m eating well.

    Heather wrote on March 15th, 2011

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