How Too Little Sleep Affects the Heart

Sleep affects heart health

There are many reasons to prioritize getting a sufficient amount of sleep each night.  Adequate sleep improves cognitive function, alertness, mood, and work and sports performance.  It also aids our bodies in maintaining proper body weight and producing the hormones that regulate various biological processes in our brains and bodies.  But perhaps most importantly – and surprisingly for some – getting proper amounts of sleep protects our heart.

Studies conducted by the American Heart Association and the National Sleep Foundation indicate that shortened sleep duration (defined as less than 6 hours of sleep) dramatically increases the risk of cardiovascular disease or heart disease.  Quality sleep and sufficient amounts of sleep decrease the work of your heart since your heart rate and your blood pressure go down during sleep.

Too little sleep also worsens hypertension, raises levels of calcium deposits in arteries, increases insulin resistance and risk of Type 2 diabetes, and raises levels of a reactive protein associated with stress and artery inflammation.  All of these negative effects are extremely unhealthy for your heart.  Shortened sleep also interferes with your body’s ability to regulate appetite which may cause you to eat more or crave foods that are less healthy for your heart.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults that sleep less than 6 hours per night are almost twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack as those who sleep 7 – 8 hours per night.  But the risks are a concern for everyone, regardless of age. Too little sleep earlier in life can take its toll as well.  One American Heart Association study found that adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 who did not get sufficient sleep were at much greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease as early as their 20’s or 30’s.  The teens who slept less had higher cholesterol levels, higher blood pressure, increased instances of hypertension, a higher body mass index and larger waist sizes.

Though the right amount of sleep varies from person to person, the Center for Disease Control has found that most people need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.  And it is as important to get quality sleep as it is to get a sufficient amount of it. If you are restless, wake up often or fail to fall into the deeper stages of sleep when your body is best able to engage in recovery processes, the health benefits of sleep are lost.

How to Improve Your Sleep Habits

Exercise during the day – getting sufficient exercise during the day helps you in falling asleep and staying asleep at night.  But do not exercise during the 2-3 hours just before bedtime.

Establish a bedtime routine – get into the habit of doing the same things each night just before bedtime to signal to your body that it is time for sleep.  Take a hot shower or bath, have a cup of decaffeinated tea or meditate.  The important thing is to be consistent with bedtime preparations.

Stop use of electronic devices – it is important to stop using cell phones, laptops, reading devices, tablets and televisions at least 1 hour before bedtime since they act as stimulants and because the blue light they emit causes an increase in brain activity.

Avoid excess caffeine– it is best to avoid stimulants such as caffeine after mid-afternoon since they can keep you awake at night.

Avoid alcohol– while alcohol before bedtime may help you fall asleep, it disrupts sleep cycles throughout the night and will result in poor quality sleep.

Lower the thermostat – the National Sleep Foundation recommends lowering the thermostat to 62 – 65 degrees which studies have shown to be the optimal temperature range for deep sleep.

How you choose to prioritize getting the right amount of quality sleep is very important to heart health.  Sleep is a time of recovery for your entire body.  And, while your heart may still be pumping during sleep, it is at rest during the night as well.

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