Pretty much everyone knows you’re supposed to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night in order to function properly. Yet few of us worry when we lose a night out on the town, to finish up on a work project, or simply to binge-watch the latest Netflix shows. While one short night here and there won’t have any dangerous health effects, aside from the fatigue you feel the next day, chronic sleeping problems can have dangerous, even lethal, consequences on our general health and wellbeing.
Getting less sleep than we need has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, premature aging, memory loss, and decreased cognitive performance, but its far-reaching effects on heart health have only recently started to surface. Among the most recent research were the findings of a 2011 European Heart Journal review of 15 medical studies involving nearly 475,000 people, which concluded that short sleepers had a 48% increased risk of developing or dying from coronary heart disease and a 15% increased risk of developing or dying from stroke in the 7 to 25-year follow-up period.
Patients with insomnia have it even worse. An 11-year study of more than 54,000 people, ages 20-89, concluded that participants with multiple insomnia symptoms (struggling to fall asleep, waking up frequently, or having poor quality sleep) were four times more likely to suffer from heart disease than those with no insomnia symptoms. Participants were followed for 11 years, during which time about 1,400 were diagnosed with heart failure, with symptoms most prevalent in older adults and women.
Researchers, however, aren’t yet sure if insomnia or other sleep disorders are the direct cause of heart failure, only that there’s a clear association between shortened sleep and increased risk factors for heart disease. It has been shown that lack of sleep causes increased coronary artery calcification, high-blood pressure, and abnormal hormone levels. Sleep apnea, in particular, is a known heart hazard, accounting for approximately one-third of all cases of high blood pressure among adults.
Why Is Sleep Important for Your Heart?
The process of sleep is comprised of two stages: Rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. When you fall asleep, you are in the non-REM phase, which makes up about 80% of a full night’s sleep. During this time, the heart is resting, causing your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure levels to drop to levels below those that occur during daytime. REM sleep is the phase when you have most of your dreams (about 20% of your total sleep time), during which your heart rate and blood pressure oscillate.
During REM-sleep, the body goes through a restorative process, regulating hormone levels, keeping blood pressure under control, repairing damaged tissue, and consolidating memories over the past waking day. The brain and muscles use sleep to restore memories and recuperate, giving the heart the chance to slow down its beating and rest.
Cortisol (stress hormone) production decreases during sleep, reaching its lowest levels during the first three to five hours after the onset of sleep, and allows the heart to recover from the stresses of the day. Because sleep also helps maintain a healthy balance between the hormones that cause you to feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin), it is as important as healthy eating and exercise for individuals with high cholesterol or an increased risk of obesity.
Sleep Problems Can Damage Your Health – What Can Fix It?
Getting less sleep than we need may be commonplace in a 24/7 society as today’s, but it doesn’t mean you should be oblivious to the symptoms of sleep deprivation. If you have a hard time falling or staying asleep, making certain lifestyle changes can help you build better sleeping habits and eliminate the extra stress on your body and heart. (Here are 12 excellent sleep habits and routines outlined by the Harvard Medical School for those “affected by insomnia, jet lag, or shift work.”)
If your lack of sleep is caused by elevated stress levels or discomfort and pain, alternative therapies such as chiropractic care and acupuncture may help you get better sleep at night. Muscle aches, joint problems, chronic back pain, bursitis, tendonitis, and other serious conditions can be correctly diagnosed and treated by an experienced chiropractor, who can also offer nutrition and exercise guidelines that promote better sleep.
If your elevated stress levels prevent you from falling or staying asleep at night, acupuncture can be an excellent natural sleep aid that balances your body’s energy and relaxes the mind. The ancient Chinese therapy has been shown to offer tremendous relief for those suffering from obstructing sleep apnea, by relaxing the throat muscles and keeping the airways unobstructed during sleep.
Addressing the underlying sleep disorders is key to preventing heart disease and ensuring optimal performance of both the body and mind, and the all-natural route is the safest method to achieve this. Contact your local chiropractic and acupuncture clinic to find out what’s keeping you awake at night and how you can take a proactive role in keeping your heart healthy.
About the Author
Dr. Marc Browner is the Founder of iChiropractic and Wellness in Naples, Florida. A graduate of the University of Florida in 1991, he earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Life Chiropractic in 1995. In private practice since 1998, Dr. Browner is a member of the Florida Chiropractic Society, the Florida Chiropractic Association, and he attends continuing education seminars, classes, and workshops to remain abreast of the most current treatment methods and technological advances in the field.