How Lack of Sleep Affects Your Heart’s Health

Lack of sleep can affect your heart disease risk.

If you sleep poorly, you risk more than crankiness in the morning: You risk your heart. Studies show that even if you are at a healthy weight, get exercise and don’t smoke, too little sleep can increase your risk for heart disease. 

That’s because good sleep does more than leave us feeling refreshed in the morning. It lowers our blood pressure, regulates our metabolism and insulin uptake and reduces inflammation — all critical influencers of heart disease.

Some sleep deficiencies are worse than others. Take sleep apnea. It increases your risk for heart disease independent of your age, race or gender and regardless of your weight, tobacco and alcohol use and co-morbidities like diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and hypertension. The association between sleep apnea and heart disease is complex, but researchers are getting a better handle on it. 

In fact, recent studies indicate that controlling sleep apnea can help patients better manage blood pressure, how much blood your heart pumps on a single beat, vascular health and arrhythmias. (How do you know if you have sleep apnea? If you wake up tired every day, talk to your MDVIP-affiliated doctor. They can help you – whether it’s diagnosing sleep apnea or treating insomnia.)

But even if you don’t have sleep apnea, poor sleep habits increase your risk for heart disease through three main routes:

Higher blood pressure: When you sleep, your body takes a break, cardiovascularly speaking. Your blood pressure drops. This is called “nocturnal dipping.” People with less dipping have a higher risk of heart disease. 

Type 2 diabetes: When you go without or go with less sleep, you can throw off the carefully choreographed dance your hormones do. Even one night of sleep deprivation can result in insulin resistance. How? When you are sleep deprived, your body produces less of the hormone insulin, which means you have more sugar in your blood, a risk for type 2 diabetes. At the same time, your body produces more cortisol, a hormone that helps you stay awake but makes it harder for you to use insulin. Why is this important? The top complication of diabetes is heart disease.

Obesity: Sleep also does amazing things for your metabolism – it regulates production of key hormones like insulin, mentioned above, leptin and ghrelin. Leptin and ghrelin can cause you to gain weight. Leptin, for example, tells your brain it has all the fat it needs, while ghrelin stimulates your appetite. 

When you get plenty of sleep, your body produces the right amount of both – but when you miss, it produces less leptin and more ghrelin. That’s why lack of sleep is likely to make you eat even when you don’t need it, which can lead to obesity.

How big of a problem is this? In one large study, women who slept five hours or less per night had a 15 percent higher risk of becoming obese. And being obese puts you at risk for heart disease.

While poor sleep may increase your heart disease risk, solving sleep problems can lower it. Work with your primary care physician. Let them know if you’re having trouble sleeping and discuss what you can do to start getting more zzz’s.

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