Tossing and turning all night might be affecting more than just your morning coffee intake. Research suggests that a lack of quality sleep might actually be bad for your heart.
Approximately 40 percent of adults in the U.S. get less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. And while you might be able to function on just a few hours of sleep to go about your daily life, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t affecting your heart.
First, erratic sleep interrupts your natural circadian rhythm or daily cycle of biological processes like the release of hormones during wakefulness and sleep.
“If you don’t maintain a proper biological rhythm, then the cellular machinery, the energy, the metabolism of all our parts doesn’t work together the way it’s supposed to,” says Dr. Michael J. Twery, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and spokesperson for the National Institutes of Health. “And that leads to a slow decline in our health—an erosion of our health over years of time.”
Dr. Twery is quick to emphasize that this erosion of health doesn’t happen over the course of one late night. So staying up all night to binge-watch “The Walking Dead” isn’t going to impact your heart. But an irregular sleep schedule over a period of years can increase your risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
A lack of sleep also is associated with weight gain, another risk factor for heart disease. Not only does too-little sleep slow your metabolism, it may also cause you to overeat. According to a 2012 study by the American Heart Association, sleep-deprived individuals consumed 549 calories more per day than their rested counterparts.
Chronic disorders like sleep apnea also can take a major toll on your heart. Sleep apnea is a common disorder characterized by breathing pauses or moments of shallow breathing during sleep. This causes the individual to repeatedly wake up and fall back asleep as the blood oxygen level drops over and over again.
“These periods of drops in oxygen saturation can activate the fight or flight response, causing elevated blood pressure and therefore elevated stress to the heart as it pumps against higher blood pressure,” says Dr. Amil Shah, a cardiovascular medicine specialist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
This is especially true for women with sleep apnea, according to a recent study published in Circulation, a journal for the American Heart Association. The research independently linked obstructive sleep apnea to increased levels of the blood marker troponin T (indicating heart stress), heart failure and death in women, but not in men.
Since sleep apnea occurs while you’re unconscious, it often goes undiagnosed and therefore untreated. Symptoms include loud and chronic snoring, gasping or choking, morning headaches and excessive daytime fatigue. If you think you may be suffering from sleep apnea or struggle to get enough sleep, talk to your primary physician.
“If someone feels excessive daytime sleepiness is a burden to their quality or life or performance at school or at work, then the first step is to discuss those symptoms with their physician,” Dr. Twery says. “Because their doctor will look at those symptoms in the context of their overall health.”
If you have sleep apnea, don’t leave it untreated. Be sure to strictly adhere to doctor recommended treatments like the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine to keep your airway open and minimize the stress to your heart.
Another protective step everyone should take: developing and sticking to a sleep schedule. That means consistently going to sleep at the same time and waking up seven to nine hours later, even on the weekends. You can even create a bedtime routine like drinking tea or taking a warm bath to help you wind down and prepare for sleep.
So do your heart a favor and get plenty of quality sleep every night.