Can Sleep Impact Cardiovascular Disease?
The effects of sleep on our health have been vastly under-appreciated until recently. But the truth is, sleep is the body’s main time to restore and repair itself1 from the everyday stressors it is exposed to when we’re awake. And “stressors” can come from any part of life: diet, environment, emotions, exercise, pathogens, and even internal stressors like the byproducts of respiration and digestion.
So, it should come as no surprise that sleep deprivation can seriously affect your heart health.
Let’s get into some more specific examples of how sleep is crucial to support a healthy heart
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Heart Health
First, let’s talk about heart health in general and what long-term sleep deprivation can do to
There are 7 measures of heart health2, and sleep can affect or play a role in all of them:
Some of the items mentioned in this list can sometimes be considered two-way streets when
it comes to how sleep affects them.
First, physical activity affects sleep3 by tiring you out more and forcing the body to feel more
tired than days you are not physically active.
On the opposite side of that, getting higher quality sleep allows you to push your physical
activity boundaries more than on days you did not get good sleep.
So, when it comes to heart health and physical activity, the link is pretty clear: if you’re not
sleeping enough, you won’t have the optimal amount of energy to get yourself to exercise.
And a healthy amount of exercise is key to maintaining & strengthening heart health4.
Like physical activity, diet affects sleep and sleep can affect diet5.
There is clear evidence that people who get less sleep can expect about an extra 14 pounds
(~7 kg) of body fat6 per year, when compared to their peers who get enough quality sleep.
This is due to sleep’s effects on our hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin.
When we don’t sleep enough for just one night, our brain’s sensitivity to our satiety hormone,
leptin, can decrease up to 30%7.
This means that your brain will think you are hungry, even though you might not be.
On top of that, our sensitivity to insulin can also decrease up to 30% after one night of sleep
So, you are likely to feel hungrier than you are and you’re more likely to crave high carb,
less-healthy foods when you don’t get enough sleep.
If you’re trying to follow a heart-healthy diet8, this becomes more of a challenge because the
high-carb, high-fat foods you crave after missing sleep are not usually going to fall into the
category of “heart-healthy.”
Smoking is also a chicken-and-egg scenario when it comes to sleep.
It’s known that you’re at an increased risk for heart disease when you’re a regular smoker.
What’s also interesting is that those who enjoy higher quality sleep while trying to quit
smoking are shown to have an easier time with withdrawal symptoms9.
In turn, those who smoke are more likely to experience10 poor quality sleep.
So, focusing on improving your sleep can help to decrease those cravings, and with decreased
cravings you are more likely to avoid smoking, and by avoiding smoking, you are helping to
prevent heart problems down the road.
Body Mass Index (BMI)
Similar to the diet section above, BMI has a relationship with sleep largely based on the
hormones at play.
If your body isn’t attuned to the proper signaling of leptin, our satiety hormone, you’re more
likely to feel hungry even when your body doesn’t actually need food.
And if your hunger signaling is off, you’re more likely to gain unnecessary weight compared
to those who are sleeping enough.
More weight gain leads to a higher BMI, which leads to increased risk of heart disease.
Sleep has several direct relationships with cholesterol levels.
When it comes to HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol), people getting 8 or more hours of
sleep each night have been shown to have higher levels of HDL11 than those who get less than
that each night.
And in LDL cholesterol levels, those who get less sleep are more likely to have high levels12 of
this “bad” cholesterol.
Since cholesterol levels are considered massive indicators of heart disease risk, it’s important
to make sure you’re prioritizing sleep so that your body is at lower risk for unbalanced
Blood Pressure Level
Are you noticing a pattern yet?
Just like many of the areas listed above, blood pressure level both impacts sleep quality and
can be impacted by sleep quality.
Those who get consistent, quality sleep each night have been shown to decrease their risk13
for high blood pressure.
At the other end, those whose high cholesterol levels do not dip when they fall asleep are at a
higher risk for sleep interruptions14, like sleep apnea.
Luckily, changes to your diet and exercise can help relieve some blood pressure initially,
allowing you to fall into better and better sleep as your cholesterol evens out.
In turn, once you begin to experience better sleep, you’ll be accelerating your body’s ability
to level out your blood pressure to optimal levels.
Blood Sugar Level
Insulin and blood sugar levels are vastly impacted by the amount of sleep you get.
Sensitivity to insulin decreases15 without adequate sleep. When insulin sensitivity decreases, it
means that your body is less able to process the sugar that is currently in your blood.
Having good insulin sensitivity is crucial to regulating blood sugar and if this decreases, you
can be at greater risk for type 2 diabetes.
Those who have diabetes are shown to experience higher a1c measurements16 if they’re not
sleeping enough, and even those without diabetes17 are shown to experience impacted insulin
and blood sugar levels if they’re not sleeping enough.
Long story short: adequate sleep decreases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and in
those who already have type 2 diabetes, it is much easier to manage blood sugar levels if
you’re sleeping enough.
Sleep and Cardiovascular Disease
Studies show18 that sleep is crucial in preventing the development of cardiovascular disease
This is attributed to everything we just discussed: sleep allows for repair of the body that
cannot occur while you’re awake, and sleep supports the improvement of the 7 measures of
There is a ton of interplay between risks and causes for heart disease, and getting more
quality sleep impacts both sides of the coin.
The long short? Getting more sleep can improve a vast array of health scores, many of which
impact your risk for developing CVD.
Sleep Apnea and Heart Health
Sleep apnea is a condition in which your airway gets blocked repeatedly during sleep, causing
you to stop breathing for short amounts of time.
This blocked breathing usually wakes you up or puts a kink in your sleep cycle and prevents
you from getting the proper amounts of deep and/or REM sleep.
Since sleep apnea prevents you from getting enough quality sleep each night, it can affect
your heart health by proxy.
Beyond just the detriments of less sleep on your heart health, the type of sleep apnea you
experience can have varying effects on your overall health as well.
Some studies suggest19 that those who are more likely to be aroused by sleep apnea each
night are at higher risk for all-cause mortality than those who have fewer sleep apnea
So, while sleep apnea in general puts you at increased risk for heart issues, the frequency of
episodes can put you at an even greater risk than those who react less.
So, Does Sleep Affect Heart Health?
It’s safe to say that based on our research, sleep has an incredibly important role in how
heart health is maintained over time.
Getting more quality sleep on its own improves a wide range of health issues directly related
to heart health, and depriving yourself of sleep increases your risk for many factors that
contribute to heart problems.
If you want to put yourself in a great position to avoid heart health issues in your life, a great
place to start is getting your sleep (and sleep quality) dialed in to optimize your overall