Stress, lifestyle factors and a variety of mental health issues can lead to the loss of sleep. Sleep deprivation on a regular basis can trigger serious inflammation, leading to long-term health complications, including cardiovascular issues and diabetes. And while you can instantly notice some of the effects of poor sleep, others can affect your health over time. According to the American Heart Association, people who consistently sleep less than seven hours a night are at a higher risk of developing heart disease. Further, poor sleep quality can worsen pre-existing cardiac conditions.
Why is adequate sleep important for heart health?
Dr Pradeep G Nayar, interventional cardiologist, Fortis Malar Hospital, Chennai, shares that while you sleep, you provide repair and maintenance time to your body, even at a cellular level. He adds, “In sleep-deprived people, we often notice an increase in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and high blood pressure. This also puts you at a higher risk of cardiovascular conditions.”
Further, he shares that inflammation caused by the lack of sleep is a major risk factor for increased blood pressure and subsequent inflammation. This increases the risk of atherosclerosis or plaque formation in the arteries, leading to impaired blood circulation.
“Atherosclerosis is the main reason for heart disease, including heart attack, coronary artery disease, and stroke. This is because, over time, the plaque hardens and narrows your arteries. It limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart,” says Dr Nayar. When plaque builds up inside your arteries and hardens over time, it leads to the narrowing of arteries. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart, he adds.
The risk of impaired blood circulation to the brain, a major factor responsible for brain stroke, is high in people with inadequate sleep. A 2018 study published in Journal of Stroke found sleep disorders, particularly sleep apnea, are prevalent among people at risk for stroke. Dr Sai Sudhakar, senior interventional cardiologist, Gleneagles Global Hospitals, Hyderabad, points out that inflammation induced by sleep deprivation is one of the main causative agents of stroke.
Heart conditions caused by sleep deprivation
1. High blood pressure
Blood pressure generally tends to dip at night when the body gets adequate rest. However, in people who don’t get sufficient sleep, blood pressure can remain high because of stress and strain. Dr Nayar says that people who do not get at least seven hours of sleep will have elevated blood pressure at night. This forces the heart to work overtime to pump blood through the body even after sundown. Sleep deprivation could also lead to fatigue and stress on the following day, which could also lead to a spike in blood sugar levels.
2. Coronary artery disease
Poor sleep increases the risk of conditions such as stress, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension which are also some of the common risk factors for Coronary Artery Disease (CAD). “High blood pressure and obesity are the main factors causing inflammation in the blood vessels, which leads to the buildup of plaque in the arteries, including the coronary arteries responsible for ensuring proper blood circulation to the heart”, says Dr Sai Sudhakar, senior interventional cardiologist, Gleneagles Global Hospitals, Hyderabad.
3. Heart attack
Those who are sleep-deprived are at increased risk of heart attack, says Dr Sudhakar. Apart from the risk of plaque and blood clot formation, lack of sleep also increases the complimentary risk factors of heart attacks, including stress, impaired supply of oxygenated blood and hypertension.
The link between sleep and obesity
Dr M S Kanwar, senior consultant and advisor, HOD, dept of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine, lead of lung transplant, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, shares that those with sleep problems can have more daytime sleepiness and the tendency to eat more. These, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, lead to an increase in the risk of obesity. So, even indirectly, obesity leads to a cascade of obesity-related problems, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and hypertension. This becomes another way of affecting the cardiovascular system.
A study published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine found that those who slept less than seven hours a night had a higher average body mass index and were more likely to become obese.
Causes of sleep deprivation
According to Dr Kanwar, the most common sleep disorders are insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, upper airway resistance syndrome, and narcolepsy. He adds that they can cause poor sleep quality. “Sleep deprivation or a change in sleep pattern can lead to stress, increased blood pressure, and certainly cardiovascular problems”, he shares.
Experts elaborate on different issues that cause sleep deprivation.
- Sleep apnea: It causes poor sleep quality and affects sleep efficiency. Thus, people with this condition sleep for about three to four hours across the night as they wake up frequently.
- Restless leg syndrome: Restless leg syndrome causes people to wake up repeatedly because of discomfort, numbness, or a tingling sensation in their legs.
- Lifestyle factors: These have led to sleep problems in recent times. The increased use of computers and smartphones as well as watching the television late into the night have led to people staying awake for longer hours. As a result, people sleep for just a few hours.
- Long sleep latency: It can also lead to sleep poor sleep quality.
Managing sleep problems
Dr Kanwar advises that improving sleep quality and duration can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. Establishing a consistent sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedtime routine, and ensuring a comfortable sleep environment have proven to be beneficial. “It’s not just the number of hours that you’re in the bed. but how much time you spend in proper deep sleep is very important”, stresses Dr Kanwar.
- Consistent irregular sleep can take its toll on your heart.
- Those who are sleep-deprived tend to have an elevated heart rate and stress levels. Poor sleep can negatively affect your blood pressure and increase the risk of several cardiovascular problems such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, and stroke.
- Improving sleep quality and duration can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease.