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.


Quality Counts

Montgomery points out that even if you’re in bed for 7 hours, your heart might not get the rest it needs.

Sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea -- where your airway gets closed off, causing you to stop breathing several times a night -- lead to stress.  “When that adrenaline pumps 30 or 40 times a night,” Montgomery says, “it can create a lot of trouble.”

If you have sleep problems that don’t go away when you make good sleep habits a priority, talk with your doctor.

Should You Take a Nap?

There’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep, but a nap won’t hurt.  “There’s no evidence that a 20-minute nap is directly helpful for long-term heart health,” Montgomery says. But he points out that naps do refresh your mind, put you in a better mood, and lower your overall stress level.

Remember, many things affect your heart, and sleep is one of the easiest to fix.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on April 27, 2015



American College of Cardiology.

David E. Montgomery, MD, cardiologist, Piedmont Hospital, Atlanta.

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