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Can a Good Night's Sleep Help Your Heart?

The American Heart Association has added sleep to its cardiovascular health checklist. Here's how to get a good night's rest.

By Allison Forsyth August 17, 2022

Sleep and Heart Health

Image: Kari Perrin

Getting a good night's sleep is one of life's many pleasures—but it's also great for your heart.

In June 2022, the American Heart Association updated its cardiovascular health checklist to include getting proper amounts of shut-eye. (The list includes other lifestyle factors like nicotine exposure, physical activity, diet, weight, blood glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure, too.)

The association recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night for optimal cardiovascular health for adults; 10 to 16 hours for children ages 5 and younger; nine to 12 hours for ages 6-12; and eight to 10 hours for ages 13-18.

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. According to American Heart Association's 2022 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update, approximately 121.5 million people in the U.S. also have high blood pressure, 100 million are obese, and only 1 in 4 Americans report getting the recommended amount of exercise per day.

"The new metric of sleep duration reflects the latest research findings: sleep impacts overall health, and people who have healthier sleep patterns manage health factors such as weight, blood pressure or risk for Type 2 diabetes more effectively," American Medical Association president Dr. Donald M. Lloyd-Jones said in a statement.

Here are some other effects that sleep deprivation can cause.

Non-rapid eye movement

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep is an essential time for the body to recuperate. During the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep stages, the heart rate slows and blood pressure drops. These changes reduce stress on the heart. Without sufficient sleep, a person doesn't spend enough time in NREM phases.

Most people spend about 80 percent of the night in this type of sleep, according to Florida Sleep Specialists, which has offices in Sarasota and Bradenton. Any time you wake up from sleep, even briefly, your heart rate and blood pressure climb, and your heart has to work harder.

Hypertension

Blood pressure drops by 10-20 percent during healthy sleep. This is known as nocturnal dipping, and it has tremendous benefits for the heart, especially since studies have found that elevated nighttime blood pressure is tied to overall hypertension.

Your nocturnal blood pressure is even more indicative of heart problems than high blood pressure during the day. Non-dipping has been tied to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Several studies have also shown a link between hypertension and an abnormal breathing pattern during sleep called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The drop in oxygen level from not breathing, and the increase in heart rate and blood pressure caused by waking up, causes stresses for the heart.

Coronary Heart Disease

Sleep deprivation can contribute to a condition called atherosclerosis—the hardening and narrowing of the arteries due to plaque build-up. This reduces the heart's ability to get enough blood and oxygen. If patients with coronary artery disease also have sleep apnea, their blood oxygen levels drop and their heart rate and blood pressure rise, increasing the work required of their heart.

Chronic Inflammation

Poor sleep triggers a chronic inflammation response in the body, which can contribute to plaque build-up in the arteries. Plaque involves white blood cells produced by the immune system. Your immunity response is on high alert when you have a lack of sleep. You're inflamed as a result.

Heart Failure

About 40 percent of people with congestive heart failure also have a sleep-related breathing disorder called central sleep apnea (CSA).

An observational study of over 400,000 people found that people who slept less than seven hours per night had an elevated risk of heart failure. Heart failure was also more common in people who had other indicators of unhealthy sleep including insomnia symptoms, daytime sleepiness, snoring and being an "evening person."

Heart Attack

In one study, people sleeping less than six hours per night had a 20 percent higher chance of a heart attack. There is also an increased risk of sudden cardiac death (dying from heart stoppage) in the several hours after waking up.

Tips For Getting Heart-Healthy Sleep

Get to sleep at around the same time every night.

Reduce the amount of artificial, blue and natural light two hours prior to sleeping.

Leave electronics—phone, laptop, tablet—outside of the bedroom. Set an alarm clock instead.

Wear a device that tracks your sleeping habits. This can be an Apple Watch, FitBit or even Oura, a new ring that is connected by Bluetooth to your phone.

Avoid caffeine, alcohol and fatty foods prior to going to sleep. This will upset your stomach, causing acid reflux and thereby making it harder to sleep at night.

Seek out treatment for sleep apnea, snoring and other sleep disorders.

Visit a cardiologist if you have concerns regarding your heart health.

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