Don't Sleep On It

The Most Essential Link To Heart Disease Most Of Us Ignore

Time to reconsider your heart health priorities.

Originally Published: 
A man awake in bed in the dark, staring at his bright phone.

Parents are plenty familiar with severe sleep deprivation. We’ve all been there — for longer than we care to admit. Research shows parents lose sleep for the first six years of their children’s lives, and that doesn’t just make us grouchy. In fact, poor sleep — from insomnia to snoring the night away — is strongly connected to having heart issues. A new study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, finds that people with sleep disorders could spend up to seven more years of their lives with cardiovascular disease compared to those without sleep disorders, a difference that was more pronounced in men.

“Sleep has been under-appreciated by the public health sector for quite a while, as shown by the very few national guidelines [or] recommendations on sleep health,” says epidemiologist and study author Huang, Bo-Huei, Ph.D., from the University of Technology Sydney. “I hope our findings can be a wake-up call.”

The researchers’ previous work found that poor sleepers had a 39% greater chance of dying from cardiovascular disease than healthy sleepers.

Luckily, there are many ways to improve sleep hygiene. Here are four ways poor sleep is linked to heart disease, and what to do about it.

Snoring & Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea — in which a person’s airway partially collapses when sleeping, causing snoring and daytime drowsiness — has long been linked to cardiovascular disease. That’s likely because the collapsed airway means not enough oxygen pumps through the body during sleep. As a result, the body produces the stress hormone epinephrine, which can cause high blood pressure over time.

Sleep apnea is most commonly treated with positive airway pressure (PAP) therapy, in which a pressurized machine pumps air into the body to keep the airway inflated during sleep. Sleep apnea commonly co-occurs with obesity, so losing weight can also help reduce sleep apnea. In severe cases, surgery is also an option.

If you have sleep apnea, it’s essential to manage your condition to improve your sleep — and your heart.

The Scourge Of Insomnia

Research suggests that people with insomnia have elevated levels of inflammation, which can trigger high blood pressure and heart disease.

But tackling insomnia isn’t easy. Anyone who’s been trapped in a restless night of cyclical thought patterns can attest that insomnia is a difficult beast to tackle, particularly because it involves making changes to both physical and mental health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends avoiding nicotine, caffeine, or alcohol before bed, as well as big meals that leave you feeling bloated. If you find yourself restless because of stress or worrying, try relaxation techniques such as mediation or stretching before bed. Scents like lavender have also been shown to relax the body and signal it’s time for sleep.

Trying To Get By With Less Sleep

Getting too few hours of sleep can be a result of going to bed too late or waking up throughout the night. But regardless of the cause, not catching enough zzz’s can send your endocrine system and metabolism out of whack, lowering hormones like testosterone and melatonin while increasing ghrelin, a gut hormone linked to sensations of hunger. Although having too little or too much of some of these hormones has independently been linked to cardiovascular disease, an unstable metabolism could also cause overeating, which later on down the line could increase the risk of heart disease.

Exercise and getting lots of physical activity has been shown to not only promote more restful sleep, but also counteract the risk of cardiovascular disease that poor sleep is associated with.

In general, making your bedroom cozy and inviting for sleep can help you score more hours unconscious. This can be achieved by keeping it dark, cool, and clutter-free, with a mattress and pillow you look forward to using each night. And if it seems like you’ve tried everything and you’re still tossing and turning after 20 minutes, try getting up and doing a quiet, low-energy activity like reading until you’re ready to hit the hay.

Irregular Sleep & The Power Of A Sleep Schedule

Typically, a person’s circadian rhythm dictates when they sleep and wake. But people with irregular sleep have these cycles disrupted, so they have trouble falling asleep or wake in the middle of the night, which leads to daytime drowsiness. This has been shown to disrupt the body’s metabolism and increase the risk of developing conditions such as diabetes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends setting a consistent sleep schedule to combat irregular sleep patterns. Reserve your bed for sex and sleep only, as checking emails or doing other activities in bed can signal to the body that it’s a place for wakefulness rather than rest. Avoid daytime naps, as this can also disrupt your sleep schedule.

It’s also important to go outside during the day and get lots of sunshine, particularly right when you get up. That’s because the body has an internal clock — its circadian rhythm — that signals when it’s time to sleep. Light signals to the body that it’s time to wake up, and darkness releases melatonin, telling the body it’s time to rest.

And yes, digital light also affects circadian rhythm, so give yourself at least an hour buffer before bed without smartphones or television. Try picking up a book instead, as reading has been shown to be a stress-reducing activity that can help you wind down after a long day.

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