The Sleep-Heart Connection

Here's some serious and important news about sleep and heart health: there's yet more evidence of a link between sleeplessness and heart disease.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Here's some serious and important news about sleep and heart health: there's yet more evidence of a link between sleeplessness and heart disease. The results of a large-scale study show that people who suffer from insomnia are at higher risk for heart attacks.

The study, which was conducted by scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology, included 52,610 men and women, who began by answering a survey that included questions about their sleep. Researchers followed up with the participants over a period of 11 years, during which time 2,368 people included in the study experienced a first heart attack. After adjusting for several health and lifestyle factors, including age, sex, education, physical fitness, smoking, alcohol consumption and high blood pressure, the researchers determined that:

• People who had difficulty falling asleep had a 45 percent greater risk of heart attack compared to those who regularly fell asleep without trouble.
• People who had trouble staying asleep throughout the night had a 30 percent greater risk of heart attack than people who were able to sleep through the night.
• People who woke feeling tired and un-rested had a 27 percent higher risk of heart attack than people who woke feeling refreshed.

These results are the latest contribution to a growing body of evidence that disordered sleep, such as insomnia, increases the risk of cardiovascular problems for both men and women:

• Too little sleep -- or too much sleep -- may cause an increased risk of high blood pressure, according to one study.
• Another study found that lack of sleep may contribute to calcium deposits in the arteries
• Research indicates that adults who sleep fewer than six hours per night are at a higher risk for inflammation in the body, which can contribute to heart disease.
• Another study showed that adults who slept fewer than six hours nightly were at a 48 percent higher risk of heart disease, and a 15 percent greater risk of stroke.
• Even in people who are very physically fit, a lack of sleep appears to increase the risk of heart problems.
• The cardiovascular risks that are associated with low sleep appear to be more serious for women.

In the current study, it's the effects of insomnia on the heart that is being investigated. Insomnia is an all-too-common sleep disorder, affecting as many as a third or more of American adults, according to the National Institutes of Health. There are two basic types of insomnia. Acute insomnia consists of short-term episodes of sleeplessness. Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, can last for months or years. Most people with chronic insomnia spend several nights a week struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep.

How do we identify insomnia? You may be surprised at how broad the definition can be. Insomnia can include several difficulties related to sleep. For some people, it may involve an inability to fall asleep. For others, insomnia may be more about struggling to stay asleep throughout the night. People coping with insomnia may also wake in the morning already feeling tired -- missing the feeling of being refreshed and restored from a night of sound sleep. Any of these problems -- or a combination of them -- can be considered insomnia. Its effects can linger throughout the day, in fatigue, concentration problems, difficulty with memory and irritability.

Insomnia is a sleep problem that can happen to anyone -- even children -- but the likelihood of dealing with insomnia increases as we age. We don't always know what causes insomnia -- though identifying the root cause is important in helping to determine the most effective treatment -- but there are many factors than can precipitate this lack of sleep. An illness or a medical condition can bring about difficulty sleeping that, without treatment, can evolve into insomnia. Major life events -- marriage, divorce, childbirth, death of a loved one, job changes -- can bring about insomnia, as can certain lifestyles that include shift work or extensive travel. Stress is an enemy to sleep, and is an all-too-common cause of insomnia.

With so many adults affected by insomnia, and therefore exposed to the possible risks of heart disease and other illnesses, it's critically important that this and other sleep disorders not be left unattended, by patients or by doctors and other health-care providers. What can you do to help lower your risk of insomnia, and protect your sleep -- and your health?

Track your sleep. Being mindful of your sleep patterns is the best way to catch and treat any sleep problems early, before they become more entrenched and difficult. Keeping a journal or a log can help -- keeping regular track of bedtimes and wake times, as well as how you feel in the morning when you wake up, can give you a clear picture of how you're really sleeping.

Exercise. Physical activity is good for your heart, your overall health and your sleep. There's also evidence that it helps alleviate insomnia.

Manage your stress. Easy to say, right? This can be among the most important things you do to help your health and your sleep. Mindbody activities such as meditation, yoga, even massage, can help.

Talk to your doctor. Take that sleep journal with you to your next check up, and have a real conversation with your physician about your sleep -- before it becomes a problem. Undiagnosed sleep disorders like insomnia put you at risk for heart problems and other health complications. Talking with your physician can be a first important step toward sleeping -- and feeling -- better.

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

Everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep™
twitter: @thesleepdoctor