When you think about improving your heart health, food and exercise may come to mind. Sleep is just as crucial – even though many people treat it like a luxury, not a necessity.
“Just like we talk about eating a low-fat diet to minimize your cholesterol and maintain your heart health, maintaining your sleep health is important for your overall well-being,” says Susheel Patil, MD, PhD, director of the Sleep Medicine Program for University Hospitals.
And yet, many people view sleep as a luxury, not a necessity. “Most Americans are probably sleep-deprived to some extent,” Patil says. According to the CDC, 1 in 3 U.S. adults gets less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Over time, that could put them at higher risk for conditions that may impact the heart, including obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Getting good-quality sleep on a regular basis lets your body get the restorative break it needs. Without it, you’re more likely to develop health problems. And that, in turn, can affect your heart.
People who get less than 6 hours of sleep a night are more likely to gain weight, develop diabetes, and be diagnosed with heart disease than those who get 7-8 hours of sleep, Patil says. And, he says, there’s evidence that sleep-deprived people tend not to live as long as their well-rested peers.
Also, people with sleep apnea are more likely to develop heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Chronic insomnia also raises your risk of developing heart disease over time.
The Sleep-Heart Health Link
The overlap between heart health and sleep disorders is so strong that some cardiac centers have sleep specialists on staff. That’s the case with Baptist Health’s Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute in Florida, where Harneet Walia, MD, serves as director of sleep medicine and continuous improvement. Walia says she regularly educates her patients on the connection between sleep, heart health, and overall health.
Often, she says, people don’t realize how serious sleep issues can be for the heart. “It's like high cholesterol. You sometimes don’t know it’s causing bad stuff to you until you treat it,” Walia says. “Many times, people are symptomatic with sleepiness, fatigue and difficulty sleeping, and sometimes people are not. But it’s having consequences in your body, and you may not be realizing it.”
Seeing the impact of sleep on heart health is why Walia specialized in sleep medicine. Early in her career, a patient in the practice where she worked had what’s called “resistant hypertension.” Despite being on four blood pressure medications, his blood pressure was still out of control. The health care team recommended that he do a sleep study, which pinpointed a crucial problem: sleep apnea. After he started on continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy to address his sleep apnea, his blood pressure quickly improved. So did his mood and quality of life.
That inspired Walia to earn her fellowship in sleep medicine. “There are over 80 sleep disorders that exist affecting about 70 million Americans, and they have intersections with lots of organ systems, particularly the cardiovascular system,” she says. For those people, improving sleep could improve heart health.
Fall Asleep as Easy as 1, 2, ZZZ
You probably know the basics of getting good sleep. It will help your heart – and the rest of your body – to do these things.
Stick with a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends. Your body and brain will get used to the routine and sleep should come more easily. Patil says this is “probably the most important thing anybody can do to start to lay the foundation for better sleep.”
Don’t be productive in your bedroom. Patil says your bedroom should be devoted to rest and relaxation, sheltered from busy-ness. As he puts it, “you really want to make the bedroom a bit of an oasis.”
Set a curfew for screens. Walia says you should avoid using electronics 30 minutes before bed to help you relax. She also recommends trying not to nap during the day. If you must nap, do so earlier in the day and not for longer than 20 minutes.
If you do all of that and you still feel tired and cranky, or you’re worried about your sleep, talk to your doctor.
Sleep may feel decadent, especially if you feel expected to be “always on.” But for a healthy and productive life, it’s a must-have, on par with eating well and working out. Patil puts it this way: “The more you can practice healthy sleep habits throughout your life, the less you’re likely to develop these types of sleep disorders, and you’re going to maintain your overall health over the longer term.”