Catch Zzz's

Are You In "Sleep Debt"? It Could Be Hurting Your Heart

So what can you do to chip away at your sleep deprivation?

Couple cuddling together in the bed sleeping at night
Anchiy/E+/Getty Images

There’s really nothing better as a parent than knowing Saturday is coming, and you get to catch up on all that sleep you missed out on during the week. Unfortunately, new research shows that playing catch-up on the weekends isn’t doing much to make up for heart health problems caused by the sleep debt you accrued earlier in the week during those late-night diaper changes or sleep regressions.

Previous research has shown that sleep is vital to health, especially cardiovascular health. During REM sleep, your body has a chance to recover from your busy day. Your heart rate and blood pressure drop, giving your heart a much-needed breather. Inadequate sleep has been linked to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke (as well as other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s).

“Only 65% of adults in the U.S. regularly sleep the recommended seven hours per night, and there's a lot of evidence suggesting that this lack of sleep is associated with cardiovascular disease in the long term,” study co-author, Penn State associate professor of biobehavioral health Anne-Marie Chang, explained. “Our research reveals a potential mechanism for this longitudinal relationship, where enough successive hits to your cardiovascular health while you're young could make your heart more prone to cardiovascular disease in the future.”

For the study, Chang and her team followed 15 adult men over the course of an 11-day inpatient sleep study. For the first two nights, participants were allowed to sleep as much as they wanted, up to 10 hours. For the next five consecutive nights, participants were only allowed to get five hours of sleep, and the following two nights, they were allowed a recovery period of up to 10 hours of sleep each night. Heart rate and blood pressure were measured every two hours during waking hours.

The researchers found that participants’ heart rates increased on average by one beat per minute per day over the course of the study, and systolic blood pressure increased by 0.5 mmHg each day. These values did not return to normal when the participants were allowed to sleep for up to 10 hours during the recovery period.

“So, despite having additional opportunity to rest, by the end of the weekend of the study, their cardiovascular systems still had not recovered,” explained lead author Penn State grad student David Reichenberger.

Notably, most adults get between six and seven hours of sleep each night, not less than five — and the researchers didn’t measure whether catching up on sleep on the weekend can help you recover from getting six or seven hours during the week, so it’s hard to know how little sleep you can get with minimum impact on your health. But previous studies have found that getting just seven hours of sleep a night can protect you against anxiety and depression, conditions that affect almost 40% of American adults.

“Sleep is a biological process, but it’s also a behavioral one and one that we often have a lot of control over,” Chang explained. “Not only does sleep affect our cardiovascular health, but it also affects our weight, our mental health, our ability to focus, and our ability to maintain healthy relationships with others, among many other things.”

If you don’t feel like you have control over your sleep — and who can blame you, as previous research has found that parents of new kids can experience sleep disruptions for up to six years — there are a few things you can do to help. Many millennial couples have instituted the “sleep divorce” — the practice of sleeping in separate rooms from your spouse — as a way to get better quality sleep.

You can also try science-based tips to help you fall asleep faster or get better sleep — crucial to those of us who are waking up multiple times a night to take care of our kids. Lowering the thermostat, playing white noise, ditching blue light (AKA your smartphone) before bed, taking a bath before bed, or limiting meals before you crawl in between your sheets may help you sleep better and fall asleep faster.

And remember that just because you’re not sleeping enough doesn’t mean you’re dooming yourself to a lifetime of misery. Just try to get a little more sleep on the weeknights, if you can.