Science Says: Poor Sleep Increases Risk of Heart Attack

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Sleep is not a luxury — it’s vital for a healthy heart. Yet more than one in three American adults say they don’t get the recommended seven hours of sleep each night. Over time, poor sleep habits can increase your risk of a heart attack. Sadly, lack of sleep has become a way of life and even a badge of honor for many of us.

What is the relationship between sleep and heart disease?

The relationship between sleep and heart disease is complex but undeniable. A study that looked at sleep duration and heart attack found that sleeping less than six hours per night increases your risk of a heart attack by 20 percent.

During sleep, you cycle through two phases: non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) and rapid eye movement (REM). Though it may seem like nothing is happening when you sleep, these phases are both essential to your waking health. Quality sleep helps you cope with stress, problem solve, and recover from illness.

Non-REM sleep stage helps the heart slow down and recover. On the other hand, REM sleep increases breathing rate and brain activity, helping encode memories and aid in learning. Not enough sleep can throw these two stages out of whack — increasing heart attack risk.

Chronic sleep deprivation and the heart

Sleep affects many bodily functions that contribute to heart disease. Over time, insufficient sleep may cause high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and high levels of certain inflammation-related chemicals. A study published in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that chronic sleep deprivation can lead to complex problems linked to increased cardiovascular risks, such as:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Weakened immunity
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure

In fact, an observational study from the American Heart Association (AHA) looked at over 400,000 people and found a strong link between sleep problems and heart failure.

How sleep apnea contributes to lack of sleep

Sleep apnea keeps you awake and ruins your sleep cycle. But it is more than just bothersome to you and your partner; it can have life-threatening consequences. Lack of sleep due to sleep apnea means the heart and cardiovascular system don’t get vital recovery time.

Ongoing research from AHA links sleep-disordered breathing to cardiovascular disease. If you have sleep apnea, you are two to four times more likely to develop an abnormal heart rhythm than someone without this condition. In fact, sleep apnea increases the risk of heart failure by 140 percent and the risk of coronary heart disease by 30 percent. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor.

The link between chest pain and insomnia

Insomnia, one of the most common sleep disorders, leads to significant cardiovascular health risks. A cross-sectional study assessed patients with unexplained chest pain. The study, which took place in emergency departments of two academic hospitals, found that people with recurrent, unexplained chest pain have high rates of insomnia-type symptoms.

In fact, 44 percent of all patients seen suffered from clinically significant insomnia symptoms. While researchers are not sure what links the two disorders, emotional reactions like stress and anxiety (frequently experienced by those with insomnia) could be contributing factors.

Can not sleeping cause a heart attack?

Researchers from China tracked insomnia among people aged 30 to 79 with no heart disease or stroke history. The study published in the journal American Academy of Neurology looked at three symptoms of insomnia, which lasted at least three days a week. The symptoms were issues with falling asleep or staying asleep, waking up too early, or struggling to stay focused during the day due to disrupted sleep. The researchers followed all of the 487,200 participants for about ten years. Participants experienced 130,032 occurrences of stroke, heart attack, and other heart-related diseases. Wrap Image ID: 51719894

A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that one in two adults experience short-term insomnia at some point in their life. One out of ten people battles long-lasting insomnia. Chronic insomnia can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. It can also lead to counterproductive habits, like unhealthy food choices, lack of proper exercise, and higher stress levels. Eventually, these habits can damage your heart.

Tips for better sleep

Sleep hygiene is all about creating sleep habits that provide the best possible rest each night. Waking up groggy and cranky each morning is the least of your worries. Waking suddenly during the night abruptly spikes both blood pressure and heart rate. If this happens often enough, it can cause cardiac stress and may induce a heart attack.

Here’s how you can improve your sleep hygiene:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same — even on the weekends or days off.
  • Get physical activity during the day but try not to exercise before bed.
  • Avoid using your smartphone or tablet before bed. Consider using a blue light filter on your phone as well.
  • Don’t eat or drink before bed — especially alcohol and foods high in fat or sugar.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.

Bottom line: Scientists are starting to recognize that lack of sleep increases the risk of heart disease. Meanwhile, many sleep disorders go undiagnosed and untreated. While insufficient sleep is not always a medical problem, it can result in bad health habits.

Sleeping less than seven hours each night and frequently waking throughout the night can negatively impact your health and significantly increase your risk for heart attack. If you have a hard time falling asleep, experience regular sleep disturbances, or struggle with daytime sleepiness, take action to change your habits, get help, and restore your health.

-NHD Team

Medical Review: Dr. Lauren Lattanza 11/2/21

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