person holding heart in hands

The Secret to a Healthy Heart: Sleep

/ December 3, 2019

If you've been following this blog at all, you know by now that getting enough shut-eye each night is essential for your health and well-being. Quality sleep does everything from boost productivity and concentration to strengthen your immune system to prevent depression. Sleep is also, it turns out, vitally important for your heart.

Here, learn about the connection between heart health and sleep and find out how to improve your sleep to keep your ticker in tip-top shape.

How lack of sleep affects your heart health

“Lack of sleep doesn't necessarily cause heart disease," Phyllis Zee, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and director of the Sleep Disorders Program at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, tells WebMD. But, she notes, “it really increases the risk factors for heart disease."

For example, your blood pressure goes down while you sleep—but when you don't get enough sleep, or you have irregular sleep patterns, it stays higher for longer. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is one of the leading causes of heart attack and stroke.

Sleep has also been found to affect levels of hemoglobin A1c, a key marker of blood sugar control. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites research suggesting that optimizing sleep duration and quality may be important means of preventing type 2 diabetes (which raises your risk of heart disease) and, for those with the chronic illness, improving blood sugar control.

A European Heart Journal review of 15 studies involving nearly 475,000 people found that “short sleepers" (those who got only five to six hours per night) had a 48% greater risk of developing or dying from coronary artery disease and a 15% greater risk of developing or dying from stroke during a seven- to 25-year follow-up period.

A University of Chicago study, meanwhile, found a connection between short sleep and increased coronary artery calcification. Researcher Diane Lauderdale, PhD, professor at the university's Pritzker School of Medicine, tells WebMD these calcium deposits are “a good predictor of subsequent coronary artery disease."

Related: How sleep deprived are you (really)? Take this quiz to find out

Irregular sleep and your heart

Too little sleep isn't the only thing that can increase your risk of heart disease. Not keeping a regular sleep time can also throw your heart out of whack.

A 2019 study from the American Heart Association examined subjects' nightly sleep duration and how long it took them to fall asleep. The researchers looked at data from nearly 2,000 people without cardiovascular disease at the start of the study. Participants wore sleep-monitoring wrist devices for seven-day periods from 2010 to 2013.

It turned out those with irregular sleep patterns also were at higher risk for a cardiovascular event such as stroke, congestive heart failure, and coronary heart disease. People whose night-to-night sleep length varied over a seven-day period by more than an average of two hours were more than twice as likely to have a cardiovascular event than those who varied by an hour or less.

Research suggests young people are at particular risk for irregular sleep-related heart problems. A 2019 study out of MassGeneral Hospital for Children found that adolescents who didn't sleep well were at greater risk for developing cardiovascular problems. They had higher cholesterol levels, a higher body mass index, larger waist sizes, higher blood pressure, and an increased risk of hypertension. Obesity and cardiovascular risk factors in childhood often lead to cardiovascular disease later in life.

Sleep apnea and your heart

According to Harvard Medical School, anywhere from 47% to 83% of people with cardiovascular disease, 35% of people with high blood pressure, and 12% to 53% of people with heart failure, atrial fibrillation (a heart rhythm abnormality), and stroke also have sleep apnea.

People with sleep apnea are constantly awakened during the night as they repeatedly gasp for air, which leads to poor sleep quality and thus an increased risk of heart problems. Harvard Medical School notes that untreated sleep apnea may up your chances of dying from heart disease by up to five times.

Related: 7 things you do while you sleep that could signal a health issue

How to get better sleep for a healthy heart

There are a few simple steps you can take to improve your sleep—and help keep your heart healthy.

  • Speak with your physician if you think you might have sleep apnea. Wearing a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask during sleep can keep airway passages from closing so you won't be woken up during the night.
  • Get regular physical activity—but not too close to bedtime because this may make you feel too energized to sleep.
  • Limit alcohol consumption, especially close to bedtime because alcohol interferes with sleep.
  • Develop a bedtime routine to signal your body to begin slowing down for the night. This might include taking a warm bath, journaling before bed, or any other relaxing activity.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule, turning in each night and getting up each morning at the same time—including weekends.

Ready to take a more unconventional approach to catching Z's? Here are seven trendy wellness treatments that can help you sleep.

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