12/10/2010 08:52 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

How Your Sleep Habits May Be Damaging Your Heart

If someone said to you that your lifetime risk of a heart attack was close to 100 percent, you'd probably want to do everything you could to either prevent that fate or delay it by as long as possible, right?

Heart attacks continue to be the number-one killer of Americans; 1.5 million heart attacks occur in the United States each year, with 500,000 deaths. Costs related to heart attack exceed $60 billion per year.

Most of us are aware of the ways in which we can help keep our hearts healthy:
  • Eating a sensible, balanced diet high in healthy fats and low in saturated fat.
  • Keeping our cholesterol and blood pressure under control.
  • Maintaining a regular exercise routine that gets our heart pumping faster.
  • Managing stress.

But what about sleep? How does that factor in?

Turns out that sleep factors in big time: a new study shows that poor sleep may worsen heart health by increasing inflammation. Chronic inflammation has gained a lot of attention in recent years due to the associations found between this bodily process and an array of illnesses and disease. While inflammation is a normal physiological process and part of our immune system, when it runs amok it can wreak havoc on our cells and tissues. This explains why inflammation can play a major role in heart health, as it can lead to restricted blood flow and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

This recent study found that regular bouts of insomnia and poor sleep quality may increase inflammation throughout the body, which may be further aggravated by high cholesterol, resulting in heart complications. The specifics:
  • After surveying 525 participants on their sleep habits, researchers from Emory University measured their levels of certain inflammatory hormones, including the famous C-reactive protein that's used as a biomarker for inflammation.
  • They found that individuals who regularly got the least sleep were significantly more likely to have high levels of the hormones and, consequently, inflammation.
  • In fact, adults who slept for six or fewer hours had higher levels of all three inflammatory markers that the researchers measured.
  • The researchers at Emory also noticed that men and women with poor sleep quality had higher blood pressures.

There was something else that the researchers discovered to their surprise: men -- not women -- who experienced poor sleep quality had less flexible arteries. This condition also contributes to hypertension and puts more stress on the heart.

The reason for this could be due to certain hormones or other variables going on in women that help explain the discrepancy. This doesn't mean women can get away with poor sleep. It just means that we need to study gender differences when it comes to health and their separate risk profiles.

Fibrinogen, one of the other markers observed in this study, forms a fibrous mesh that slows blood flow, thus increasing blood pressure and potentially causing hypertension. This fibrous mesh quickens the time it takes for your blood to clot, which can cause a stroke or heart attack.

So it goes without saying that we all need to keep sleep on our list of priorities for keeping our hearts healthy and strong.

Bottom line: Rest up to keep your heart up and running. You may feel like a ticking time bomb as you juggle too many to-dos and run around like mad addressing your commitments and obligations. But that ticking time bomb can be real if you're simultaneously throwing sleep out the window. Add more minutes to your life just by adding more quality sleep minutes to your time in bed.

It really could be as easy as that.

Sweet dreams,

Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.
The Sleep Doctor™