April 19, 2023

In yet more evidence of the importance of a good night’s rest, this study found a link between irregular sleep and heart health.

We’ve been told for a long time that the amount of sleep we get each night is important. The Centers for Disease Control recommends seven or more hours a night for adults age 18-60 and has recommendations for every stage of life.

Now, a growing body of research shows that the quality and regularity of our sleep is important as well – but how do we define a good night’s sleep? Look for these clues:

  • Regularity – Do you go to bed around the same time each night and wake around the same time each day, even on weekends? Going to bed and rising at regular times has been shown to be beneficial.
  • Duration – Do you sleep different lengths of time throughout the week? It’s best if the amount of sleep each night is roughly the same.
  • Disruptions – Do you wake frequently during the night? Do you feel rested in the morning? If your sleep is often interrupted, you may not be getting the full benefit.

If you struggle with regularity, duration or sleep disruptions, you might face the long-term effects of sleep deprivation.

Irregular sleep and heart health

For example, researchers have found connections between irregular sleep patterns and heart health, which can be interconnected with overall health.

One such study led by Kelsie Full, PhD, MPH, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, monitored a diverse group of people from all over the United States for seven days. Those with greater irregularity in their sleep duration were more likely to have a buildup in their arteries and stiffness in their blood vessels, commonly referred to as “hardening of the arteries.”

“Maintaining regular sleep and sleeping a similar amount of time each night may play an important role in preventing heart disease.”

“These results suggest that maintaining regular sleep and sleeping a similar amount of time each night may play an important role in preventing heart disease,” Full said.

This study builds on previous research showing that other groups of people with interrupted, irregular sleep patterns – like shift workers or those with sleep apnea – are at increased risk for developing heart disease.

The answer may lie in our circadian rhythm, the “internal clock” that guides our body through daily milestones like hormone release, hunger, body heat and when we feel like it’s time to wake up or go to sleep.

“It turns out, circadian clock genes also guide almost all major cardiovascular functions, including heart rate and blood pressure,” Full said. “Our findings add to the evidence that doctors who encourage their patients to maintain regular sleep patterns can help them reduce their risk of heart disease.”

In addition, Full and her research colleagues note that disrupted circadian rhythms can cause issues like chronic inflammation, changes in glucose metabolism and increased stress reactions, all of which can make heart health worse and cause other health issues.

How to improve irregular sleep patterns/health

If you have trouble sleeping on a regular schedule without interruptions, you can try creating the optimal conditions for sleep by practicing “sleep hygiene” The CDC offers these tips, including:

  • Ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing and cool enough.
  • Keep cell phones, TVs, computers and other screens out of the bedroom.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.
  • Exercise. Physical activity can help you be tired enough to fall asleep more easily. However, avoid exercising too close to bedtime if you find it energizes you too much to sleep.

If you have tried these and other sleep hygiene tips without luck, it is time to see your doctor. You may have a sleep disorder, such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Narcolepsy
  • Restless Leg Syndrome
  • Sleep apnea

Treatments are available for these conditions, and – as we have learned – achieving quality sleep should not be put on the back burner. It is a fundamental part of quality of life and preventing future health issues.

Doctor evaluating patient's heart for any signs of AAA.

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