Journal

How Sleep Affects Your Heart Health

February 21, 2022

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For something we’ve done since the day we were born, sleep sure can be complicated. While some do enjoy regular nights of deliciously deep sleep, many of us find ourselves struggling with it at some point in our lives. 

In fact, in Philips’ 2020 Global Sleep Study, it was found that 51% of adults worldwide are unsatisfied with their sleep. And every year this number continues ticking upward, while the number ofpeople attempting to resolve their sleep issues continues to decline. Considering the impact that sleep quality has on cardiovascular health, our hearts are less than thrilled with this trend. 

Sleep Deprivation is Common, Not Normal

Because sleep deprivation, which is defined as less than six hours of sleep, has become so commonplace, and our bodies are so adaptable (at least for a time), the issue often gets swept under the rug. Or even used as a bragging right. Before we go on to explore why quality sleep is so essential for heart health, the leading contributors for lacking quality sleep, and ways of combating them, let’s first agree on one thing: 

Just because sleep deprivation is common, it should not be the standard. Our quality of sleep directly affects our hearts, our happiness and our overall sense of well-being. Whether sleep patterns are shaky due to insomnia, sleep apnea, or plain old night-owl tendencies, you and your heart deserve to be rested so you can start each day as your own best version.  

Lack of Quality Sleep Increases Heart Rate

Consider this your new mantra: “When I’m well-rested, my heart is well-rested.” 

Likewise, when you’re tired, your heart is tired. It seems pretty simple, right? In order for our resting heart rate (RHR) to decrease, we have to give our hearts time to, well… Rest. When they don’t get that rest, they become less efficient. Much like us. And it doesn’t only affect RHR. A study showed that when participants got less than six hours of sleep, their daytime heart rates increased as well. And this was coupled with increased stress hormones that have the tendency to constrict blood vessels and increase blood pressure.1 

Lack of Quality Sleep Increases Heart Rate

Of course, if lacking good sleep increases our heart rates, and has the potential of increasing blood pressure, then it comes as no surprise that it also increases our odds of developing heart disease. 

For instance, a review of multiple medical studies in the European Heart Journal shared that those who sleep less than the recommended amount (between 7-9 hours nightly) are 48% more likely to develop or die of coronary heart disease (CHD), and 15% more likely to develop or die from a stroke, within a seven to 25-year timeframe. And those with regular sleep problems are more also more likely to develop an irregular heartbeat and heart palpitations.2 

Getting less than six hours of sleep can also impact heart health in ways such as: 

  • Increasing risk of heart attack by 20%3 
  • Increasing risk of stroke, due to heightened blood pressure 
  • Increasing insulin resistance, a known risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease4 
  • Decreasing heart rate variability 

Too Much Sleep is Also Hard on the Heart

Based on the negative impact lack of sleep can have on our hearts, it would be natural to come to the conclusion that more sleep must be better for heart health. But that’s not the case. In the same European Heart Journal review, those who got an average of nine or more hours of sleep per night showed a 38% higher risk of developing or dying from CHD, coupled with a 65% increased risk of stroke. This just goes to show that, like most things in life, getting the right amount of sleep is all about balance. 

Cultivating a Sleep Pattern That’s “Just Right”

The CDC recommends that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. While too much or too little sleep can hurt heart health, the good news is that find that sweet spot, and getting enough quality sleep can help it. And even help to protect you from heart disease. Why is this the case? 

When we get the right amount of sound sleep, our blood pressure and heart rates drop, reducing our hearts' overall workload. Sleep also helps to regulate our hormones, brain functioning and general sense of well-being. Just consider how much easier it is to be physically active and make aligned food and lifestyle choices when you’re fueled with the (decaf) energy you need! 

6 Common Causes of Poor Sleep & Ways of Combating Them

Even for those who struggle with sleep, there are always new science-based sleep hygiene practices to try. From sticking to a calming bedtime routine, to avoiding alcohol and heavy meals, to exposing your eyes to the proper light throughout the day for hormonal balance. Let's explore: 

Calm Bedtime Routines Cue Your Brain for Sleep

It's no secret that human beings are creatures of habit. Across the board, our bodies do well with structured schedules. When our nightly bedtime varies, our minds and bodies remain prepared to stay awake as late as needed, rather than naturally winding down in preparation for a good night's rest. This can result in restlessness by the time you actually do hit the hay. 

However, by setting and sticking to a consistent bedtime (and ideally wakeup) schedule, your mind and body naturally sync, resetting your internal clock and, ultimately, resulting in more restful sleep. When creating your routine, consider what makes you feel most relaxed. It could be reading, taking a bath, journaling or sipping on warm tea while cozied up on the couch. Try to stay away from anything too stimulating or fast-paced, such as screen time.

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Consumption Before Bed Makes Your Heart Work Harder

For your heart to be at its most rested throughout the night, it needs to have minimal work to do. Of course, eating heavy meals or drinking alcohol, at least two hours before bed, means your heart and body are busy working on digestion by the time you lay your head on the pillow. During that time, your heart rate accelerates and is working hard. 

In order for your heart to get the rest it needs, which better allows you to get the rest you need, try to save heavy meals or alcohol for earlier in the evening. This allows your body and heart to focus on other restorative duties. (Setting and sticking to a mealtime routine, to go along with your bedtime routine, can also help with overall digestive functions). Ideally, plan to eat dinner at least two hours before bed. And if you find yourself craving snacks closer to bedtime, eat easily digestible foods such as fruit. 

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Proper Light Exposure Resets Circadian Rhythm

Improper light exposure, like blue light up to two hours before bed, can be damaging. Not only to your eyes, but to your entire hormonal system. Of course, screens (e.g., phones, television and monitors) all emit this blue light. Blue light blocks the release of melatonin, which is you sleepy hormone. This is not a bad thing during the day when you need to be awake. But when you engage in excessive screen time before bed, the melatonin is unable to work its magic when you want it to, making it hard to fall asleep in a timely manner. This can result in increased restlessness and an inability to fall asleep quickly. 

Alternatively, exposing your eyes to proper light throughout the day helps to reset your circadian rhythm and invites the properly timed release of hormones. The most ideal lighting to expose your eyes to each day is the natural light at dawn and dusk, specifically during sunrise and sunset. 

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Making Your Bedroom Sleep Specific Sets the Tone

When you use your bedroom for a multitude of activities in addition to sleep, like working, working out, socializing, or watching television, your brain begins to associate it with those things. It can then be challenging for your mind to suddenly shift the narrative from your bedroom being a place of excitement, back to it being a place of calm come bedtime. Consequently, your heart doesn't get the signal that it's time to rest either. 

In order to create the most conducive sleep environment, you want to limit your bedroom to exactly what it sounds like: Your bed. At least as much as possible. The more you only use your bedroom for rest and relaxation, the more your brain will rewire itself to automatically fall into a place of greater calm and stillness once it's in that environment. 

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Daily Exercise Invites Better Sleep

Not only is exercise good for the heart, but it's helpful for sleep also. We're all made up of energy. Some of us have more than others, but we're all still essentially clusters of moving particles. However, if we don't exert our energy appropriately, that energy becomes trapped and finds itself expressing itself in ways such as fidgeting, restless minds, or even insomnia. 

The more you move your body throughout the day, and the more physical energy you exert, the less energy is left bouncing around internally by the end of the day. The CDC recommends getting 150 minutes of activity per week, or 30 minutes 5 days a week. The more consistently you incorporate movement into your daily life, the more you'll notice the positive effects it has on both your heart, and your sleep. In fact, consistent exercise can even help to combat insomnia.5 

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Stimulants Six Hours Before Bed Disrupt Sleep

By consuming stimulating foods such as coffee, chocolate or even fried foods too late in the day, you're more likely to have a continued accelerated heart rate by the time you're ready to wind down. This makes it very difficult to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle, or sometimes to even get to sleep at all. 

A general rule of thumb is to steer clear of anything that contains caffeine after 2pm. Of course, for many, having an afternoon pick-me-up is essential to help them get through the day. In this case, you might consider foods that have a similar, but shorter-lasting effect, like a teaspoon of honey with a quarter teaspoon of ginger powder. This will give you that boost of energy, while strengthening your immune system, without the sleep depriving side-effects.

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    Using Cardiogram to Get the Sleep You Need

    Not only do you now have a plethora of sleep-savvy methods to try out for improving your quality of sleep, but you also have access to the Cardiogram app to help you along the process: 

    Check Your Resting Heart Rate

    As you explore new sleep hygiene techniques, Cardiogram will help you along by showing your nightly RHR. Check each morning to see whether or not your new routine is working. (Hint: If your nightly RHR is lowering over time, it's a good indication that it is). 

    Make Sure You're in the Zone

    When incorporating more movement into your day for better sleep at night, use Cardiogram to find your ideal heart rate zones and personal stats. Staying within your personal heart rate zones while you workout will help you make sure you're exerting the optimal amount of energy for sound sleep. 

    Journal Each Morning

    Upon waking each morning, jot down your sleep quality and what could have impacted it. Consider things like daily stressors, food choices and bedtime routines. The more frequently you journal, and the more detailed you are, the easier it becomes to start connecting important dots that would otherwise be overlooked. 

    Build Healthy Sleep Habits

    Whether committing to avoiding late-day caffeine, blue light exposure before bed, or to sleeping 7 hours a night, Cardiogram is your accountability buddy. Go to the "Habits" section of your app to join thousands of others who are also dedicating themselves to getting the sleep they (and their hearts) deserve.