Can Lack of Sleep Increase Heart Disease Risk? The Answer Might Lie in Hypocretin

Janet Tiberian Author
By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
March 4, 2019
How Does Sleep Prevent Heart Disease?

Over the last decade, experts have told us getting seven to eight hours of sleep every night can help protect us against heart disease. Ever wondered why? Researchers think they might have the answer. Healthy, sound sleep triggers a mechanism designed to protect your arteries, according to a study published in Nature

Sleep Deprivation & Heart Disease Risk

National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded researchers divided a group of mice genetically engineered to develop atherosclerosis into two groups – one with interrupted sleep, the other with normal sleep. Over time, the sleep-deprived mice developed 200 percent more inflammatory cells in their circulatory system compared to the mice that slept soundly, as well as up to 33 percent larger fatty deposits in their arteries and less hypocretin, a hormone produced in the brain.       
Researchers gave a portion of the sleep-deprived mice hypocretin. These mice had fewer inflammatory cells and smaller arterial lesions than the sleep-deprived mice who didn’t receive hypocretin supplements.

Studies in animals don’t always pan out in humans, but researchers are excited about the results. 

“This is a breakthrough study. Researchers are now able to connect the dots between sleep deprivation and cardiovascular disease,” says Bernard Kaminetsky, MD, medical director, MDVIP. “Hopefully, these results will lead to medications that provide better protection for arteries.”

What is Hypocretin?

Hypocretin (also known as orexin) is produced in the hypothalamus section of the brain. It’s responsible for maintaining sleep-wake cycles, appetite and mood. Low hypocretin levels are primarily associated with narcolepsy — a sleep disorder known for causing daytime sleepiness and sleep attacks – but hypocretin deficiencies are also linked to depression, inflammation and weight gain. What causes hypocretin levels to drop is not fully understood, but some studies suggest that genetics, stress, exposure to toxins, infections or autoimmune issues may be involved.

“At this point, the only way to check for hypocretin deficiency is through a spinal fluid test used to diagnose narcolepsy,” says Kaminetsky. “However, if you’re concerned, you can try raising your hypocretin levels naturally and work with your doctor to help you find ways to improve your sleep.”

Raising Hypocretin Levels

Lactic acid (or lactate) – the burning sensation or discomfort often felt while working out -- is a major energy source for hypocretin. As you would guess, exercise can boost lactic acid and hypocretin levels. Lactic acid also helps offset the detrimental effects of blood sugar, which blocks hypocretin cells. Blood sugar levels can also be controlled through a low-carb diet. You can also try these  hypocretin-boosting foods:

  • Sauerkraut, yogurt and pickles are good sources of fermented lactic acid, which helps stop blood sugar from interfering with hypocretin cells.   
  • Walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been found to raise hypocretin levels in non-narcoleptic people. 
  • Meat, fish, dairy products and legumes are good sources of glycine, an amino acid (protein building block) that help activate hypocretin activity while blocking blood sugar’s effect on hypocretin cells. 

Lastly, stress lowers hypocretin activity. If you need help controlling stress, try mediating, practicing yoga or breathing exercises. 

If you’re struggling to get enough sleep concerned about heart disease, work with your primary care doctor. Don’t have a primary care physician? Consider partnering with an MDVIP-affiliated physician. They have time to really work with you and develop a wellness plan that can help you control your risk for heart disease. Find a physician near you and begin your partnership in health » 

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Attention Women: Can’t Sleep? Try these 3 Mind-Body Therapies / Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES / September 14, 2018

About the Author
Janet Tiberian Author
Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES

Janet Tiberian is MDVIP's health educator. She has more than 25 years experience in chronic disease prevention and therapeutic exercise.

View All Posts By Janet Tiberian, MA, MPH, CHES
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