A great deal of research has been performed in the past few years on how sleep (and the lack thereof) can negatively affect health. Although it is clear that getting the right quantity and quality of sleep can have a variety of health benefits, the exact link between sleep and heart health was poorly understood. Why are people who do not sleep as much more prone to a heart attack? How can shift work cause high blood pressure? A new study published this year may partially explain the connection. According to the latest research, lack of sleep harms circulation, which in turn can have a variety of negative effects on the human body.
Sleep and Cardiovascular Disease
A lack of sleep can cause a wide range of health problems. The effects are particularly dramatic when it comes to cardiovascular health. Researchers recently looked at people who slept for different lengths of time every night and performed a variety of testing on their heart and blood vessels. The results were shocking: People who sleep less than six hours a night have almost a third more atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis, the hardening and narrowing of small blood vessels, is one of the top contributors to both heart attack and stroke.
Researchers in this study initially believed that caffeine caused this effect. After all, people who sleep less generally drink more coffee. However, newer research suggests that there may be another mechanism at play. One study found that mice who are sleep-deprived have higher levels of inflammatory cells circulating in their bloodstream. Because inflammation is a major cause of atherosclerosis and other contributors to heart disease, this may in part explain how insomnia harms the heart.
Research released last month further explains the relationship between sleep and cardiovascular disease, offering another mechanism by which lack of sleep harms circulation.
How Lack of Sleep Harms Circulation
New research suggests that not getting enough sleep can cause biochemical changes that lead to the destruction of blood vessels over time. Researchers identified several proteins called microRNAs that circulate in the human bloodstream. These suppress inflammatory proteins that damage the endothelium, or lining of blood vessels. When this lining is damaged, it can become thickened and hardened, similar to scarring.
These anti-inflammatory microRNAs are released when we are asleep. Sleeping for a longer period of time allows more of them to be released into the bloodstream, where they can lower levels of cardiovascular inflammation. Getting less sleep, on the other hand, means lower levels of these microRNAs and thus higher levels of inflammation. Over time, this can build up and create a great deal of damage to our circulatory system.
New Links Between Circadian Rhythm and Health
Although this is a major breakthrough, circulatory damage is not the only way that sleep can affect your health. The amount of sleep that you get every night can have a variety of short- and long-term consequences.
The short-term effects of not getting enough sleep are familiar to many of us. Losing even a single night of slumber can lead to increased stress, increased pain, reduced memory and lower performance on cognitive tasks. In addition, people who lose even an hour of sleep are more likely to get into accidents both on the road and at their jobs, which can be dangerous and even life-threatening.
While the short-term effects are serious, the long-term ones can also have a huge impact. People who lose sleep regularly over an extended period of time are not just at higher risk of damage to their blood vessels, but to metabolic syndrome, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Loss of sleep is also tied to dementia and other mentally debilitating illnesses.
Are You Sleeping Enough to Protect Your Blood Vessels?
The news about sleep’s impact on health can be frightening to people who struggle unsuccessfully to get the sleep that they need. What is the perfect amount of sleep? How can we make sure that we get this ideal number?
Although the number varies by person, research suggests that the ideal amount of sleep for most human beings is seven to nine hours a night. If you go to bed at the same time every night and can wake up without an alarm clock, you are hitting that magical number.
Getting enough sleep can be an immense challenge. Researchers suggest that keeping a balanced and steady circadian rhythm is one of the most important ways of ensuring that we get enough sleep. This means going to bed at the same time every night, waking at the same time every morning and keeping a calm, dark bedroom that is conducive to relaxation and falling asleep. In addition, many people use melatonin and other natural supplements that support a healthy circadian rhythm.
It can be a major challenge to get enough sleep. For many modern people, this will require huge changes in their lifestyle and the way that they approach self-care. However, the evidence is clear: Losing sleep is one of the worst things you can do for both your short- and long-term health.