Do Your Sleep Habits Help or Hurt Your Heart?

You want your heart to be at its best, so you work out, watch what you eat, and keep up with your medical care. That’s great, but there’s something else to put on your list. And you can do it with your eyes shut -- literally.

It’s sleep. And it matters a lot to your heart.

When you sleep, your blood pressure and your heart rate go down, giving your ticker a much-needed break. “It’s like you put your body in airplane mode,” says Atlanta cardiologist David E. Montgomery, MD.

When you stay awake, your heart works overtime.

You, Without Sleep

Montgomery says that when you don’t sleep, your body goes into fight-or-flight defense mode. Adrenaline raises your heart rate and blood pressure.

Over time, that wear and tear makes heart disease more likely. 

If you put off bedtime or can’t fall asleep, your body prepares itself for the long haul by demanding energy in the form of high-calorie foods.

Think about it: When you stayed up late to study or party, you got hungry, right? What foods did you crave?

“The foods with the most energy, the most fat,” Montgomery says. “Burritos, hamburgers, and french fries. The more of that you do, or if you do it on a regular basis, you gain weight. When you gain weight, you predispose yourself to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar -- all risks for heart disease.”

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

The right amount of sleep varies by age. You generally need less as you age.  Montgomery recommends:

  • Young children: 12 hours or more
  • Teenagers: Around 9 hours
  • Adults: 7 to 8 hours
  • Seniors: At least 6 hours

Getting fewer than 6 hours of shut-eye night after night is risky. In one study, people over the age of 45 who got less than 6 hours of sleep a night doubled their chances for stroke or heart attack and were also more likely to have heart failure.

The same study found that adults over age 45 who slept more than 8 hours per night were twice as likely to have severe chest pains (angina) and also more prone to have coronary artery disease.