By: Janet Ungless
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), an estimated 80% of cardiovascular disease is preventable. That’s encouraging news for most of us; we can choose behaviors to help keep our hearts healthy. If your daily lifestyle includes a whole food nutrient-rich diet, regular activity, and the practice of a few stress management tools (maybe deep breathing or meditation), you’ve covered most — but not all — of your bases when it comes to protecting your heart.
Don’t forget about your sleep.
Good-quality sleep is the foundation of our overall well-being, and that includes our cardiovascular health. In fact, sleep is so essential to heart health that in June 2022, the AHA granted sleep its well-deserved place on its flagship heart-health checklist, Life’s Essential 8.
So how does sleep affect heart health?
The connection between sleep and heart health
“Though poor sleep may not actually cause heart disease, when you don’t get enough good-quality sleep—whether it’s due to an untreated sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia, or you’re just staying up too late too often—you increase your risk of developing conditions that can lead to or worsen heart disease,” says W. Chris Winter, MD, a neurologist and sleep expert and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix it. Here’s how low quality sleep can hurt your heart health.
1. It can increase your risk for hypertension/high blood pressure
As you sleep, many things happen that support rest and recovery from the day, including cell and tissue repair. “During non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep stages, your heart rate and breathing slow, and your blood pressure goes down. These changes reduce stress on the heart, allowing it to recover from the day,” Dr. Winter says. Without sufficient sleep, you don’t spend enough time in the deep stages of NREM sleep that benefit your heart and your whole body.
“Frequent interruptions during the night can spike your heart rate and blood pressure, placing additional stress on the heart.” Research shows that chronic sleep deprivation increases your risk for hypertension, one of the leading causes of heart attacks and strokes.
2. It can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is an impairment in the way the body regulates and uses sugar (glucose) as a fuel, which results in too much sugar circulating in the bloodstream. If left untreated, high blood sugar levels can lead to disorders of the circulatory, nervous, and immune systems. People with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely as those without the condition to have a heart attack or stroke.
Studies suggest that not getting enough sleep significantly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “Sleep has been found to affect levels of hemoglobin A1c, a key marker of blood sugar control,” says Dr. Winter. Research shows that optimizing sleep duration and quality may be an important factor in preventing type 2 diabetes and, for those with the illness, improving blood sugar control.
3. Poor sleep is linked to higher levels of inflammation
Sleep disorders have been linked with higher levels of inflammatory biomarkers, which can indicate chronic inflammation in the body. Although studies haven’t proven that inflammation causes heart disease, higher levels of inflammation are common in people living with a heart condition.
“Exactly how inflammation plays a role in heart attack and stroke remains a topic of ongoing research,” says Dr. Winter.
4. Poor sleep can lead to excess weight gain
Studies have found that those who skimp on sleep tend to have a higher BMI (body mass index, a measurement of body fat based on height and weight) and are more likely to be obese. And the less sleep we get the more we crave calorie-dense highly processed foods, such as junk food.
“Too little sleep affects the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which influence appetite and metabolism,” says Dr. Winter. “Also, let’s be honest, when you’re tired you tend to make unhealthy food choices, and you’re less active. Poor sleep can cause excess weight gain or obesity, which in turn increases your risk for heart disease.”
Recent research by the American Heart Association, published in November 2020 in the journal Circulation, showed that adults who reported the healthiest sleep patterns have a 42 percent lower risk of developing heart failure compared with adults with unhealthy sleep patterns. The researchers defined healthy sleep patterns using 5 different sleep behaviors that included sleep duration, snoring, and chronotype .
“There’s no system in the body that is not enhanced by better sleep, and that includes your heart,” says Dr. Winter. “Every day we are discovering new ways that good sleep powers and supports optimal health.”
Click here to read more about the connection between sleep and weight.
Tips to help you get a good night’s sleep
Minimize blue light and bright light exposure before bedtime.
Blue light from electronic devices and bright overhead lights mimic daylight and can disrupt your internal body clock and circadian rhythm. Studies show that blue light can trick the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, suppressing the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps control your sleep wake cycle. Plan to power down an hour or two before bed.
Avoid late-night meals
Eating and drinking close to bedtime is disruptive to your body’s natural rhythms. After a late meal your digestive system ramps up to process the food you ate just as the rest of your body clocks are winding down for the night. For good sleep, the general rule is to take your last bites/allow around 3 hours between your last big meal and bedtime.
Get sunlight in the morning when you wake up
When it comes to sleep, the most important thing for setting your biological clock is to get sunlight in your eyes first thing in the morning when you wake up. Morning light signals the brain to kick off cortisol production and stop melatonin production. The more cues you can give your body as to the time of day or night, the better for your sleep-wake cycle.
Click here for more tips to get better sleep.
About the Author
Janet Ungless is an editor and writer with deep expertise in all areas of wellness and health. She writes about sleep, meditation, fitness, yoga, resilience, healthy eating, and adventure travel.