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What’s the connection between sleep and heart disease?

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Eating right and exercising are important keys to staying healthy but so is a good night’s sleep. However, one in three adults are not getting enough sleep and one on five adults have sleep apnea and do not get a restful night of sleep.

Sleepiness increases the risk of car accidents and other accidents. The CDC believes over 1500 car related deaths and 40,000 car accidents occur each year from sleepiness. However, the impact of inadequate sleep on heart health is far more ominous.

Several observational studies have found that people getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night have a higher risk of developing obesity, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. Through these mechanisms, the risk of heart attacks and strokes are also higher in the chronically overtired. Have you even been really tired but fight through it and then an hour later later when you are ready to sleep you can’t, that is due to cortisol. When you are overtired, your body releases cortisol which helps keep you awake but also gives you the munchies which can impact body weight and heart health. People with an asthma attack who take oral prednisone know exactly what I am talking about. Also, your body need times of activity and then of rest and if you don’t have that, your heart rate variability is reduced over the day which increases your risk of developing arrhythmias.

How can people improve the amount of sleep they are getting at night? There are several things you can do. If you are getting enough hours of sleep but are dragging all day, you might have sleep apnea. Ask a loved one if you are snoring and then have a pause where you are not breathing. If this is happening, let your doctor know and try getting a CPAP machine. Obesity can close off the airways and causes sleep apnea so weight loss can really help. If you are not getting enough hours of sleep a night, try being more active during the day and try going to bed earlier. If you feel that you are tired enough to sleep now, staying up an extra 40 minutes to finish the chapter of your book or to finished trolling through Facebook could give you that cortisol jolt and cause insomnia. Avoid eating a large meal, exercising, or being exposed to electronic screen light for the 30 minutes before bedtime. Staring at bright light can drop melatonin concentrations and make sleep harder to come by. Finally save the bed as a place for sleep so you condition yourself to sleep when you get into bed.

Medications are available but should only be used for a short period of time when all the lifestyle changes have failed. These drugs were not designed for use beyond 5-7 days and can make it harder for you to sleep without.

Dr Michael White,  UConn School of Pharmacy