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Not Getting Enough Sleep? It Could Affect Your Heart

March 14, 2017

Think you can go without a good night’s rest? Recent research indicates that sleep problems may compromise your heart health.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recently released a scientific statement on how sleep disorders can impact risk factors for heart disease. AHA says that sleeping too little or too long isn’t the healthiest approach for your heart.

Sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea, already have been linked to several health conditions, including heart disease, irregular heart beat, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

Short sleep (defined as less than seven hours a night) and long sleep (defined as more than nine hours a night) each impact heart health in negative ways, but in its statement the AHA stopped short of issuing recommendations for how much sleep Americans should get every night for optimal heart health.

Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University, reviewed research on sleep and heart health for the AHA. In the statement, St-Onge said more research is necessary to better understand the connection between sleep and heart health.

St. Onge also said longer studies are needed to explore whether sleep irregularities over several weeks impact cholesterol, triglycerides (fat) and inflammation levels in the body. Previous research has established a connection between sleep and these conditions, but hasn’t definitively concluded that lack of sleep causes these conditions. St. Onge also said health care providers should ask patients about their sleeping patterns and behaviors during their visit. She said people who are overweight and snore should be referred to a sleep specialist to test for sleep apnea, a condition caused by airway blockages that causes a person to stop breathing momentarily when he or she sleeps.

Though AHA’s statement indicates there’s a link between sleep and heart health, identifying the right treatment for people who suffer from sleep disorders is a challenge, and some treatments may improve sleep patterns, but not significantly improve heart health or lower the risk of heart-related health conditions. One recent study in sleep apnea patients, for example, indicates that a specific treatment for this condition doesn’t decrease the likelihood of a heart attack or other cardiovascular issues in these patients. In the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that 42 percent of patients assigned to a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine had less severe sleep apnea, but the treatment did not have a significant impact on their risk for a cardiovascular emergency. Seventeen percent of patients who used CPAP had a serious heart-related health issue during the study compared to about 15 percent of the control group, who did not receive CPAP. Still, CPAP treatment is helpful for sleep apnea patients because it improves their symptoms and reduces the condition’s effect on their cognitive abilities, including memory, learning and attention.

About 50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders or don’t get adequate sleep, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. About 29 percent of Americans also sleep fewer than seven hours a night.

This sleep deprivation could have serious health consequences, recent studies indicate. One new study conducted by researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany showed that a person’s heart rate and blood pressure increase with lack of sleep. In the study, stress levels also increased with sleep deprivation.

Preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2016 by University of California, San Francisco researchers showed that poor sleep may be linked to heart conditions such as arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. Disrupted sleep, including insomnia, also may be linked to atrial fibrillation (A-Fib), which occurs when rapid electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers to contract irregularly. The condition can lead to heart failure or stroke if it isn’t treated.

The preliminary research also found that people diagnosed with insomnia had a 29 percent higher risk of developing A-Fib compared to those without insomnia. People who frequently woke up at night had a 26 percent higher risk of developing A-Fib compared to those who didn’t, the study found.

So, considering all these risks, what can you do to ensure a good night’s rest?

Learning and practicing healthy sleep habits can help you prevent lack-of-sleep induced heart problems. Turn off all electronics before you go to bed. Research has shown that these gadgets send signals to the brain that cause it to be highly alert. Train your body to go to sleep around the same time every night, and if you can’t sleep, go to another and try to fall asleep there. Also avoid caffeine right before bed, as drinking coffee or soda can keep you awake.

If you’re experiencing extreme fatigue or inability to sleep, speak to your cardiologist, especially if you have a preexisting heart condition. Like a balanced diet and exercise, sleep is a critical component of a healthy lifestyle. Don’t skip it — for your sake and for your heart’s.

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