Your sleep habits can affect your heart attack risk

Published: Feb. 27, 2023 at 6:26 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Dr. Russ Fowler is a chiropractor but on Monday he was seeking medical help from someone else when he stopped by Common Sleep, a sleep diagnostic center in south Springfield.

“It’s a little humbling,” he said with a smile. “Sometimes you think you have your health in control but then I realized that I might not be breathing well while I’m sleeping. My wife and I both noticed I’d be waking up while I was sleeping and I also noticed I was having heart palpitations or arrhythmias. And I’m wondering if that had something to do with my not sleeping well.”

So Fowler was given an at-home sleep monitor at Common Sleep to help with his diagnosis because he knows it’s crucial to his overall heath.

“It’s very concerning because I know how important good and restful sleep is,” he said. “I’ve been experiencing a loss of energy and brain function, just not being as clear and sharp as I usually am.”

“Sleep is restorative,” said Sue Knox, a Respiratory Therapist for over 30 years who works at Common Sleep. “So when your body doesn’t get the rest it needs it can be detrimental for your health. It can lead to a stroke, your blood pressure being out of control or a heart attack.”

In fact people with insomnia are 69% more likely to have a heart attack compared to those who do not have the sleep disorder, according to a new analysis of previous research just presented at the American College of Cardiology’s annual conference.

“Insomnia is a significant issue in terms of depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Cecily Cornelius-White, a Behavioral Sciences Professor at Drury University. “Sleep can affect people’s stress and how they interact with others. And it is interesting how much of a ripple effect that kind of thing has.”

The study conducted by an international team of researchers examined the connection between insomnia and heart attacks through data on more than one million adults, average age 52, from six countries. People were categorized as having insomnia if they had at least one of three symptoms:

  • Difficulty falling asleep.
  • Difficulty staying asleep.
  • Waking too early in the morning.

The symptoms had to be present for at least three days a week for at least three months. Over an average of nine years of follow-up, people who habitually slept five or fewer hours were 56 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those who had the recommended eight hours a night, regardless of age or gender.

Sleep apnea, where your breathing stops-and-starts while you’re sleeping, can also affect your heart.

“When you get into the more moderate to severe episodes of apnea you have more times where you quick breathing, your oxygen level is dropping and it’s putting more pressure on your heart,” Knox explained. “That means your heart has to work harder all night long when it’s supposed to be resting and you’re not getting enough oxygen circulating to your brain.”

Studies also show that people with high quality sleep live longer. Men extend their life expectancy by 4.7 years and women by 2.4 years.

There are many factors that keep people from getting a good night’s sleep that should be avoided.

“It’s O.K. if you have to get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom,” Cornelius-White pointed out. “But what you want to do is minimize interruptions. Interacting with devices too close to bedtime can negatively impact your sleep. Also eating too close to bedtime. All of what I’m describing is part of something called sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene means you use your bed for sleeping and that’s it. So try not to watch TV in your bed. And don’t put your phone on the bedside table while you’re sleeping. That will go a long way in helping you get a good uninterrupted rest. Even if you have it on silent mode that vibration can draw you out of a deep sleep. And sleep is important because that’s when our body recharges. It’s important for memory consolidation and learning. It’s when we heal and it’s necessary. If you’re sleeping it’s for a good reason so we need to honor that and make sure we get good sleep.”

An estimated 10 percent of Americans have some form of insomnia and it’s more common in women, said Dr. Sanjay Patel, director of the Center for Sleep and Cardiovascular Outcomes Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

“At least part of the reason for that may be that two of the most common risk factors for insomnia are anxiety and depression, which are both more common in women,” said Patel.

Here are some suggestions from experts on creating a good sleeping routine:

  • Make sure the bedroom environment is comfortable and quite dark.
  • Avoid any chemicals that will stimulate your brain. Caffeine should be avoided for at least eight hours before bedtime. Nicotine and tobacco products should also be avoided. “You want to find things that will help you relax, instead,” said Patel.
  • Avoid looking at a clock. “Seeing what time it is gets people even more stressed that they’re not sleeping,” said Patel. “We want people to do things that distract the brain and maybe even make them somewhat bored.”
  • Read a book or play a mindless game on the computer. Knitting or listening to music can help the transition to sleep.
  • Avoid naps. Clinical trials have shown that some sleep deprivation in the short term can help improve sleep. “No matter how poorly you’ve slept, you want to force yourself to get up and you want to avoid naps during the day,” said Patel. “You will be training your brain to recognize that if it doesn’t sleep during the time you’ve given it, it won’t get any more sleep.
  • Get lots of sunlight. You can start working on your sleep first thing in the morning by making sure you’re exposed to sunlight, which helps calibrate your biological clock. “Go outside and walk,” said Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in medicine at the Harvard Medical School and an associate sleep scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
  • Focus on getting relaxed before bed. “You might want to take a warm shower,” Robbins said. “If you can’t stop thinking about what’s coming tomorrow, write down a list of dos so you can get them out of your head.”

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