Sleep Soundly So Your Heart Can Beat Smoothly

older couple sleeping soundlyPoor sleep quality may increase your risk of heart disease.

This is the conclusion of a meta-analysis that examined the effects of poor sleep quality on the heart. In particular, the study looked at the development of an irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation, a known risk factor for heart disease. It has been shown in previous research that specific sleep problems like sleep apnea increase the risk of atrial fibrillation. In this new study, researchers wanted to know if poor sleep quality was associated with developing atrial fibrillation later in life.

The researchers examined data from three separate studies that included information from millions of patients. They found that patients diagnosed with insomnia—characterized by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or poor sleep quality—had a 29% increased risk of developing atrial fibrillation. Patients who had not been diagnosed with a sleep problem but who reported that they were often awake at night had a 26% greater chance of developing atrial fibrillation.

To better understand the connection between poor sleep and atrial fibrillation, the researchers followed more than 1,000 patients for ten years. Participants came to the clinic for a formal sleep study that monitored their brain waves, pulse, and breathing to assess sleep quality. The researchers found that lack of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep—the restorative phase of sleep where brain activity increases and most dreams occur—led to the observed increase in atrial fibrillation.

REM sleep is the fifth and last stage of sleep. Usually we progress through 4 stages of sleep to REM sleep, then begin the cycle again. Stage 1 is light sleep, stage 2 is a little deeper and deep sleep is considered to be stages 3 and 4, which is followed by REM sleep.

Based on these results, the researchers hypothesize that poor sleep may affect the autonomic nervous system, which also regulates heart rate and blood pressure. Another possibility is that disrupted sleep cycles add extra stress to the heart. Over time, this may result atrial fibrillation.

Although the exact mechanisms linking poor sleep and heart disease remain unclear, there is one thing sleep researchers can agree on: the importance of sleep. Here are some tips to help improve your sleep quality and cardiovascular health:

  • Stay physically active
  • Avoid too much caffeine, especially after morning hours
  • Decrease stress through activities like yoga, mindfulness, and meditation
  • Create an evening routine

Research shows that sleep–proper sleep–is a critical piece of a heart-healthy lifestyle. What are you waiting for? Get some sleep!

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