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Sleepless nights may increase heart disease risk by 75%

Sleepless nights might not just leave you grumpy, but could also raise your risk of heart trouble later in life.

A new study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine takes a look at this unexpected link. It shows that sleep patterns during midlife may strongly influence the risk of heart disease in the latter part of life, especially among women.

The research, known as the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), tracked 2964 women’s sleep habits (insomnia symptoms and sleep duration) over several years and monitored heart disease events.

During the study, 202 women had heart-related events. The findings revealed that middle-aged women who sleep less than five hours every night on a consistent basis have up to 75 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular issues like strokes, heart attacks, heart failure, and coronary artery disease.

The elevated risk remained even after accounting for other health factors, such as weight (BMI) and pre-existing conditions. It can be interpreted that the duration of sleep has a direct relationship with the health of the heart.

Sleep duration

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that adults should get between seven to nine hours of sleep each night. However, most polls show that up to one-third of adults and about half of middle-aged women do not meet those recommendations.

The researchers also reported that women who slept for less than five hours had a 72% higher risk of heart disease compared to the women who averaged about six and a half hours.

As expected, women who had shorter sleep times and often experienced symptoms of insomnia turned out to be at greater risk of heart disease (by 75%) compared to women who reported ideal sleeping durations and very rarely had any insomnia problems. Race and ethnicity did not seem to affect the link between sleep and heart problems.

Disrupting the body’s natural rhythm 

The researchers explained how the combination of different physical components become problematic when you do not get enough rest. 

When a person is asleep, the body automatically goes into a state of “rest and repair.” This includes, among other things, a usual dip in your blood pressure to a level typically about 10-20% lower than when you’re awake. This nightly decrease allows your heart and your blood vessels the necessary time to recuperate from the stresses encountered during the day.

However, this normal rhythm is disrupted by sleepless nights. Additional hours of higher blood pressure puts extra strain on the heart.

Consequences of sleep deprivation 

Each night during sleep, it is not only your mind and body that take a break. Your blood vessels also repair themselves in a very important way. The endothelium – the inner lining of your vessels – regulates blood flow, stops dangerous clots from forming, and keeps inflammation at bay.

Chronic sleep deprivation, however, disrupts this harmonious coordination. Sleep loss essentially dampens the endothelium’s ability to regulate blood flow and prevent clotting. 

This can result in increased blood pressure and higher chances of development of blood clots, which are known to obstruct vital highways in the circulatory system.

Sleepless nights can also make you feel hungrier and less satisfied after eating, making it easier to pack on the pounds. Extra weight puts more strain on the heart, increasing the risk of heart problems.

Tips for getting better sleep 

  • First, establish a routine. Go to bed at the same time every day and get up at the same time every day, even at weekends. This trains your body to sleep and wake at certain times, regulating your natural sleep-wake routine.
  • Get rid of any electronics before bed. An eye mask or blackout curtains are also great investments.
  • Avoid caffeine and heavy meals near your bedtime for they stimulate your body and do not help you in winding it down. Try reading or light stretching to bring you to sleep.
  • Get moving! Regular physical activity also ensures better sleep. But avoid engaging in strenuous workouts just before sleep. Schedule moderate exercise earlier in the day.

The research is published in the journal Circulation.

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