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Sleep and heart health: A relationship that never rests

Sleep and heart health: A relationship that never rests

Sleep and heart health are linked, so much so that in 2022, the American Heart Association added sleep to its list of essential components for cardiovascular health. Getting enough sleep can improve your heart health, but sleep deprivation can increase your risk for heart disease. In a vibrant city like NOLA, it’s easy for sleep to get lost in the shuffle, but your heart is counting on you to keep sleep a top priority.

Your heart on sleep

Many organs and body systems, from your brain to your immune system, need sleep to recharge, carry out important processes and function most effectively. Your heart is no different.

When you’re asleep, your heart doesn’t take the night off, but it dials back its activity. You’re at rest, so your heart doesn’t need to work as hard as when you’re awake and physically active. It’s getting its own version of rest. During the first phase of the sleep cycle, your heart rate and blood pressure decline. Both ramp back up during the phase known as REM sleep, which is when you dream, and as you wake.

How poor sleep threatens heart health

Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but too many fall short. One-third of adults in the U.S. don’t get at least seven hours of sleep on a nightly basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sleep problems that can affect heart health include:

  • Insomnia—According to the CDC, up to half of adults experience short-term insomnia, which is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. For some people, the problem can last for three months or more, which is known as chronic insomnia. Insomnia may increase your risk for high blood pressure, which, in turn, is a risk factor for heart disease. Insomnia is also linked with a higher risk for diabetes. Improving sleep quality and quantity, however, may help control blood sugar.
  • Narcolepsy—People with narcolepsy feel overly sleepy during the day due to an abnormal sleep/wake cycle. Narcolepsy may play a role in a variety of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure and heart attack. This may be due, in part, to how narcolepsy changes blood pressure behavior during sleep.
  • Sleep apnea—This condition causes pauses in breathing during sleep. As a result, your body may not get as much oxygen as it needs. With sleep apnea, you have a higher risk for heart attack, stroke and heart failure.

Sleeping longer than recommended can be bad for your health, too, and it may even be worse than not sleeping enough. If you have heart disease, ensure you get the recommended amount of sleep rather than aiming for more than nine hours each night.

Take good sleep to heart (health)

Do you have trouble falling asleep or feel excessively tired during the day? A sleep disorder could be the cause. Tell your primary care provider, who can work with you to pinpoint the problem and improve your sleep. If you have or are at risk for cardiovascular disease, our heart and vascular care team at University Medical Center New Orleans can help.

In addition to working with your primary care provider, you can take steps to improve your sleep hygiene, including:

  • Don’t use electronic devices in the hours leading up to bedtime.
  • Do relaxing things before bed, such as reading or listening to soothing music.
  • Eliminate ambient light in your bedroom by, for example, hanging blackout curtains.
  • Exercise during the day but not too close to bedtime.
  • Go to bed and get up at the same times every day.
  • Keep your bedroom cool.

By improving your sleep hygiene, you make a long-term investment in your heart health.

Need help getting to the root of a sleep problem and managing your heart health? Make an appointment with a University Medical Center New Orleans primary care provider.