How Does Sleep Affect Your Heart Health?

Occasionally missing a full night’s sleep happens to everyone. It can be caused by a variety of factors and is relatively harmless. However, experiencing poor sleep over a longer period of time can impact a person’s health. Sleep contributes to may important processes in the body.

This is why people with insomnia may have a higher risk of other medical conditions, like high blood pressure, asthma, depression, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.1 Many of these conditions, along with poor sleep, can impact heart health and lead to heart attacks, heart failure, and more.

What happens to our body when we do not sleep?

Most adults need around 7 hours of sleep each night. During this time, our bodies become re-energized, memories are stored, and blood pressure and blood sugar are controlled. When we do not get enough sleep, our blood pressure and blood sugar may be impacted. Additionally, without good sleep, a person may feel sluggish the next day. This may impact their motivation to exercise, ability to eat well, and can affect mood.

All of these factors can increase a person’s risk of developing obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.1 This is why heart health and sleep are often connected.

Adding sleep as a predictor of heart health

The American Heart Association uses a tool called “Life’s Simple 7” to determine a person’s heart health. It takes into account 7 factors, including tobacco use, physical activity, body mass index (BMI), cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diet, and blood sugar levels.2 By factoring in these 7 things, a healthcare professional can often make a judgment about a person’s risk of developing heart disease.

Some experts have suggested that adding sleep to this list may help better predict heart health. Because sleep is so closely linked with many processes that can lead to heart problems, it would make sense that it could help predict a person’s risk. One study in Norway tested this idea. The researchers used sleep characteristics and patterns to determine if these could predict heart health. Among about 20,000 adults at risk for heart disease, those who consistently got 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night had lower odds of developing heart disease.2

Those who got less than 6 hours of sleep had a higher risk of having poor heart health. They also had higher rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.2 All of these can further contribute to heart issues. Overall, adding sleep to the list of factors to consider when determining heart health may lead to better predictions of a person’s risk.

Insomnia and heart failure

More specifically, the relationship between insomnia and heart failure has been studied in recent years. Some estimates have suggested that about 75 percent of people with heart failure also have insomnia.

One study looked at almost 55,000 adults with and without heart failure who completed questionnaires on their sleep habits. They found an association between the number and severity of insomnia symptoms and heart failure.3 This means, the more severe a person’s insomnia was, the more likely they were to also be diagnosed with heart failure (compared to those without insomnia). These results further strengthen the link that insomnia and heart health are closely related.

What can I do to protect my heart?

Although these findings may be intimidating, there is still hope. Since sleep and heart health may be intertwined, it makes sense that working to improve sleep may also reduce the risk of heart disease.1

While improving sleep may be difficult for someone with chronic insomnia, there are several tips that can be tried to get a better night’s rest:1

  • Sticking to a regular schedule, with regular bedtimes and wake-up times
  • Exercising during the day
  • Avoiding artificial light as much as possible (including screens), especially right before bed
  • Get some form of natural light early on in the day
  • Keep your bedroom temperature cooler at night
  • Avoid eating or drinking right before bed

For some, these tactics may not be enough to improve sleep. If you are still struggling to get a good night’s rest, contact your doctor or healthcare provider. They may recommend medications or other treatment options to better manage your insomnia.

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