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How Sleep Affects Your Heart

March 15, 2023

Middle-aged couple sleeps soundly side-by-side.

Good sleep is fundamental to good health. It affects everything from your mood and weight to your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Sleep is so important to your cardiovascular (heart) health that the American Heart Association now recognizes it as one of its eight pillars for optimal heart health.

So how exactly does sleep affect your heart and what can you do to ensure a good night’s rest? Michael Weinrauch, MD, a cardiologist with Atlantic Health System, breaks it down for us.

What is good sleep?

Good sleep is characterized by seven to nine hours of uninterrupted rest each night. That means no sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, snoring or waking to use the bathroom. Consistent sleep patterns, meaning going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time, and being in tune with your circadian rhythm are also key. For optimal sleep, the trick is to balance quality, quantity, timing and regularity.

The better and longer you sleep, the better it is for your heart health.

Michael Weinrauch, MD, Atlantic Health System cardiologist

How does good sleep positively affect your heart health?

When you’re sleeping, your body is repairing itself. Hormones are released, muscles grow and your blood pressure and cortisol levels lower, creating a decrease in sympathetic (fight or flight) activity. In other words, you relax and heal.

How does poor sleep negatively affect your heart health?

When sleep is reduced or interrupted, your body doesn’t go into a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state. Instead, your blood pressure and cortisol levels rise, creating stress and anxiety. And because increased cortisol can lead to insulin resistance, you’re at a greater risk for developing diabetes.

Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome have been directly correlated to an increased risk for heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure) and atrial fibrillation (AFib). Hypoxemia (low blood oxygen levels) also rises with the severity of the condition, multiplying disease risk.

How can you improve your sleep and your heart health?

Make the necessary lifestyle changes: Practice good sleep hygiene (go to bed at the same time and keep electronics out of the bedroom), exercise and make healthy choices during the day. Also, stop eating at least two hours before going to sleep.

When should you seek help?

Consult your primary care doctor, a cardiologist or a sleep specialist if:

  • You have a known medical condition like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome
  • Your bed partner complains about your snoring
  • You wake up with headaches and experience daytime sleepiness
  • You have a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure or coronary artery disease (CAD)

“The correlation between sleep and cardiovascular health is clear because sleep triggers a series of necessary biological mechanisms,” says Dr. Weinrauch. “A lack of sleep doesn’t allow the body to rest and repair.”

With a growing body of evidence to support causation, not just correlation, Dr. Weinrauch believes, “The better and longer you sleep, the better it is for your heart health.”