How a lack of sleep can damage your heart

It’s 2am, and you’re clammy and jittery, legs scrunched between the sheets. You know you have to wake up in five hours, so you start taking deep breaths of the stuffy air that, even in its stillness, feels like your only friend as you fight for sleep while you’re wide awake.

A restless night or poor sleep is part of life every now and then. But consistently missing about 7 crucial hours of shut-eye increases your risk for several mental and physical conditions or symptoms, including conditions that can affect your heart health.

However, all this is not necessarily old news. It wasn’t until the summer of 2022 that the American Heart Association added sleep duration to its list of the 8 essential things people should do to improve their cardiovascular health – the umbrella term for how your heart and blood vessels function.

However, the good thing about sleep is that there are plenty of ways to improve it. While persistent poor sleep hygiene makes you more susceptible to disease, the effects of poor sleep are cumulative and you can form new habits to improve sleep that work for you.

Here’s exactly how poor sleep affects your heart health and what you can do about it.

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Your blood pressure (and stress level) is likely to go up

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If you don’t get enough sleep over time, your blood pressure can rise. One of the reasons for this, as explained by Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez of the Mayo Clinic in a post from the Clinic, is that sleep helps the body control the hormones needed to manage stress and metabolism.

Research shows that sleep deprivation can increase levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. Too much of this can increase blood pressure over time, which can lead to heart disease, the no. 1 cause of death in the US.

This can be a chicken-or-egg scenario for the insomniacs out there, as well as those whose hearts start to race when they realize their alarms are going to go off in just a few hours. You may be stressed about sleep because you’re not getting enough of it, causing the acute stress to snowball into a long-term stress situation.

If you’re looking for more tips to close your eyes, check out this five-minute “to-do list” hack that helped one of CNET’s editors deal with his insomnia.

Over time, you may be at higher risk for a heart attack or stroke

Since poor sleep can contribute to high blood pressure, which impairs cardiovascular health, it makes sense that poor sleep is also associated with a higher risk of cardio-cerebral vascular events, including things like stroke or heart attack.

A newer study this year found a link between insomnia and getting five or fewer hours of sleep and an increased risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack).

An illustration of a heart and a stethoscope against a gray background

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Fatigue can lead to other harmful (but not irreversible) habits

Getting a bad night’s sleep before the next day’s workout can affect your workout by making it harder, potentially more painful, and just generally less fun. Of course, if you feel too tired to exercise, it means you’ll do it less often, and you shouldn’t force it if your body needs rest. But over time, a lack of exercise caused by poor sleep (or something else) can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

In fact, regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and heart health, and it doesn’t have to be a full-on workout every time. Physical activity can lower your blood pressure and help you control your cholesterol, blood sugar and other factors.

Since sleep deprivation also affects our body’s hormones, your appetite can also be affected.

As Rebecca Stetzer, a registered dietitian, explained in a post for Gundersen Health System, hormones that regulate hunger will be disrupted after poor sleep and you may find yourself craving foods high in added sugars, fat, or sodium more often than usual. This means you might feel so exhausted that you’re looking for the quickest — and often sugary — snack that will give you that energy boost you need.

Like lack of exercise, diets that contain too much sugar or sodium relative to the other nutrients our bodies need can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In general, getting enough sleep is one part of your heart health, but it’s a big part. Along with your level of physical activity, how many nutrients you eat, lifestyle factors like smoking, and whether you can check in for a doctor’s visit every now and then, sleep determines how healthy your heart is.

But daily routines like diet and exercise are never permanent – you can adjust them at any time, or whenever you can. Here are some more tips to improve your sleep and what you should know about heart disease screening.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care professional if you have any questions about a medical condition or health goals.

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