How your sleep affects your heart health

You know that quality sleep is essential to your health, but have you ever really thought about its impact? Sleep affects every aspect of the body, but let’s take a look at what it does for heart health.

When you think of healthy lifestyle habits, you may first think of getting regular exercise, eating a balanced diet and not smoking. But there’s one habit that’s just as important — if not more important. In order to maintain good health, it’s essential to get plenty of quality sleep.

In the last few decades, the amount of time adults sleep each night, called sleep duration, has been gradually decreasing. And it’s having a harmful effect on our health.

But what effects, in particular, does not getting enough sleep have on our heart health? Read on to find out.

How a Lack of Quality Sleep Impacts Heart Health

The body needs sleep in order to maintain all types of functions, and sleep is particularly important for heart health.

Researchers aren’t quite sure why getting inadequate sleep hurts our heart, but there’s plenty of evidence indicating that it does. Years of research has uncovered multiple harmful effects that a lack of sleep can cause for heart health, including:

  • An increased risk of developing high blood pressure. A 2011 American Heart Association study found that women with poor sleep quality were at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure. The results of this study appeared to show a connection between a lack of quality sleep and increased inflammation, which makes hypertension more likely.
  • An increased risk of developing heart disease. Another 2011 study, this one published in the European Heart Journal, found that people who sleep less than six hours per night (known as sleep deprivation) have a significantly higher risk of developing — or dying from — coronary heart disease.
  • An increased risk of having a stroke or heart attack. A study examining adults age 45 and older found that sleeping less than six hours a night nearly doubled a person’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke when compared with someone who slept six to eight hours a night.

A lack of quality sleep has also been associated with insulin resistance, which can cause blood sugar levels in the body to reach unhealthy levels. Insulin resistance is a risk factor for both Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

How Getting Quality Sleep Can Help Heart Health

Getting plenty of quality sleep benefits the body in many ways. But what exactly does “quality sleep” mean?

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) offers four markers for quality sleep: sleeping at least 85 percent of the time you’re in bed, falling asleep in 30 minutes or less, waking up no more than once a night, and being awake for 20 minutes or less after falling asleep.

In addition to these common markers that indicate you’re getting quality sleep, it’s also important to pay attention to how much sleep you’re getting.

The NSF recommends that most adults between ages 26 and 64 get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Some people may need slightly more or less, so as little as six hours and as many as 10 hours may be your normal.

If you aren’t falling in these categories for enough sleep or quality sleep, know that you aren’t alone. In one key example, more than one-quarter of Americans take longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep.

When you’re sleeping well, though, your heart health reaps the benefits. Quality sleep allows your heart to relax a bit, while your blood pressure and your heart rate decrease.

In addition, your entire body calms, reducing negative effects on your immune system, your breathing and your mental health. All of these effects help to lower stress on your heart.

How to Get the Sleep You Need for Optimal Heart Health

While many Americans are affected by sleep disorders that impact their sleep, many others can take basic steps to help improve their sleep.

Changing your habits related to bedtime and sleep can have a big impact. Give some of these tips a try:

  • Cut out caffeine and alcohol, which are stimulants, at least four hours before bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom cool and calm. You may want to consider limiting technology in the bedroom.
  • Create a bedtime routine that helps you wind down each night.
  • If you find yourself lying in bed unable to sleep, get up and out of the environment until you’re sleepy. Be sure to keep the lights dim during that time.
  • Go to bed and wake up at a consistent time each day.
  • Limit naps to no more than 30 minutes — and don’t nap after 5 p.m. in most cases.

Due to our circadian rhythms, the time change in March (“spring forward”) is harder to adjust to than the change in November (“fall back”). During this time, it’s especially important to maintain a bedtime routine and a consistent bedtime.

Think you’re not getting enough quality sleep? Talk with your doctor about what you’re experiencing. Need a doctor? Find one here.