How sleep affects your heart health

Want to do your heart a favor? Turn off the TV, log out of the video game, put down the book — and go to sleep.

Lack of sleep doesn’t always show up on the list of risk factors for heart disease, but many studies document that it should. People who don’t get enough sleep, or don’t sleep well enough, may be jeopardizing their health.

“Chronic sleep deprivation is common and may result from a variety of factors, including work demands, social and family responsibilities, medical conditions, and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea,” said Scott Ewing, DO, an interventional cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth. “It can lead to increased risk for cardiovascular disease, accidents and death, and detrimental effects on both psychological and physical health.”

Polls and surveys report varying numbers, but most agree that Americans don’t sleep enough. A 2013 Gallup poll put the national average at 6.8 hours per night, more than an hour less than the 1942 figure. Just 59 percent of U.S. adults said they slept at least seven hours each night, compared to 84 percent in 1942.

So what’s the harm? Dozing off behind the wheel or getting caught napping by the boss are obvious consequences. But there are real health risks as well, physical and psychological.

People not sleeping enough tend to suffer more from high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and other chronic diseases.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control calls lack of sleep a “public health problem,” concluding that people not sleeping enough tend to suffer more from high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and other chronic diseases. The National Sleep Foundation links lack of sleep to overeating, both by affecting hormones that make you hungry and by giving you more time to eat.

Last fall the American Heart Association released its first-ever scientific statement about sleep and heart health, recommending a public health campaign to encourage adequate sleep and screenings for disorders such as insomnia and apnea. It also called for more research on the subject.

The AHA panel issuing the statement reviewed dozens of studies relating to sleep and health. Among its conclusions:

  • Short Sleep Duration, referred to as SSD, is linked to higher Body Mass Index and obesity in adults and children. That could be because lack of sleep leads to poor food choices and less physical activity, slowing down metabolism and increasing cardiac risk.
  • People who don’t sleep enough seem to have a higher risk of developing heart disease, particularly if they are not healthy to begin with. Sleeping too much may not be good for you, either.
  • The risks are greater among people who suffer from Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), where partially blocked airways cause people to stop breathing briefly, wake up frequently during the night and not accumulate quality sleep.

The bottom line: Get a good night’s sleep that works for you. The National Sleep Foundation recommends between 7 and 9 hours a night for adults, depending on how you function during the day. The best way to achieve that is to stick to a sleep schedule, exercise daily and establish a good sleep environment, including a comfortable mattress and ideal temperature, sound and light.

Most importantly, “You should start with a frank conversation about sleep health with your primary care doctor, cardiologist and/or pulmonologist,” Dr. Ewing said.

Use Baylor Scott & White Health’s physician finder to connect with a physician or specialist who can offer health advice around your sleep habits.

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How sleep affects your heart health