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Is sleep the key to better heart health?

There are many ways to cut your risk of heart disease, but one of the most important steps you can take is to get enough sleep at night.

“It’s very important, and it plays into a lot of risk factors,” says Pritam Polkampally, M.D., a Piedmont interventional cardiologist.

Healthy sleep habits don’t always get the same attention as other heart disease risk factors, such as poor nutrition and lack of exercise. But good sleep is crucial for cardiovascular health, and although it may seem harmless at first, an undiagnosed or untreated sleep problem can seriously damage your body.

“It has a lot of downstream effects,” Dr. Polkampally says.

How poor sleep puts you at risk of heart disease

Just as there are many types of sleep issues, there are many ways that sleep can affect your heart. For example, one major risk factor for heart disease is hypertension, or high blood pressure. If you have poor sleep, Dr. Polkampally explains, hypertension can become difficult to control.

That’s not to say that a single night spent tossing and turning will ruin your health. But if you haven’t been getting high-quality rest for several months or years, there is cause for concern.

“The effects are cumulative,” he says.

A major red flag is sleep apnea. Patients who have this condition experience disruptions in breathing while they sleep.

“These apneic spells will eventually lead to an elevation in lung pressures,” Dr. Polkampally says. “That’s pulmonary hypertension. That can, over time, lead to heart failure.”

The danger of sleep apnea

Not enough people are screened for sleep apnea, and it can go undetected for years. Although stereotypes about the condition persist, Dr. Polkampally emphasizes that anyone can have it—not just older or overweight patients.

“You can have it when you’re a kid; you can have it even if you’re not overweight. There is evidence to show even some top-level athletes have sleep apnea,” he says. “It’s just a matter of obstruction to the airway.”    

Sleep apnea symptoms can include:

  • Frequent snoring

  • Gasping for air upon waking

  • Headaches

  • Daytime fatigue

  • Difficulty waking up

Weight loss can cure sleep apnea in some people, but it’s not a surefire fix. However, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine solves the issue for many apnea patients.

“When we get people on treatment,” Dr. Polkampally says, “it’s a night-and-day difference.”

Using a CPAP machine can seem intimidating at first, but the benefits are worthwhile. In addition to feeling more refreshed, you’ll offset hypertension and become less prone to atrial fibrillation or other cardiac arrhythmias, Dr. Polkampally says.

“There’s unambiguous data that adequately treating sleep apnea also carries a mortality benefit,” he adds.

In other words, getting treatment for sleep apnea may reduce your risk of premature death.

How to get better sleep

Everyone can benefit from good sleep hygiene. Here is what Dr. Polkampally recommends:

  • Try to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine before bedtime.

  • Read a book or listen to soft music as a way to relax just before going to bed.

  • Sleep in a pitch-black room and avoid stimulation from bright lights and sounds.

One thing he doesn’t recommend is sleep aids, which can be habit-forming.

“They’re being used more than they should be,” he says.

See your doctor if you’re experiencing serious, long-term sleep problems or apnea symptoms. They may prescribe a sleep study to diagnose you properly.

“Poor sleep is a risk factor for heart disease,” Dr. Polkampally says. “We as a practice are very serious about screening, timely diagnosis and prompt management.”

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