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Have you ever heard someone say, “sleep is for the weak”? Well, as it turns out, sleep is actually for those who want to feel stronger and healthier — and people who regularly skip out on quality rest may be doing themselves more harm than they realize. 

Everyone knows the feeling of waking up groggy and delirious after a poor night’s sleep. Whether you stayed up late to finish a last-minute work project or ended up watching one too many episodes of your favorite show, the modern world offers plenty of opportunities to pass up your nightly Z’s — but did you know that chronically poor sleep can have a profound impact on your overall health?

Acting as your nightly reset from your busy and stressful life, it turns out that getting a good night’s sleep isn’t just about restoring your energy for the day ahead. Capable of affecting a wide variety of health indicators, from cognitive function and alertness to your mood and mental state, sleep is essential for your psychological well-being — but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

In addition to impacting your mental function and energy, research has shown that chronically poor sleep can negatively impact your physical health. Recent studies have found that people who experience chronically poor sleep are at an increased risk of developing serious cardiac conditions, including heart attacks, hypertension, congestive heart failure, and arrhythmias

So, with this in mind, here are some of the latest research and findings about the connection between sleep and cardiac health. This article will explore what causes impaired sleep, explain how much sleep you need to get to protect your cardiac health and share actionable tips for improving your current nighttime routine. 

Read on to discover some surprising information about sleep that may motivate you to prioritize it more — your body will appreciate it! 

Are you getting enough sleep?

Chances are, if you are asking this question, you aren’t getting the amount of sleep you need.

According to a study published in 2015, the average adult (ages 18-60) requires a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night to promote optimal health. Sleeping less than seven hours a night has been linked to increased health problems and impaired overall health. Additionally, after periods of sleep deprivation or stress, sleeping nine or more hours per night may be required for a person to feel adequately rested.

What are the sleep stages?

An essential and natural part of life, sleep is defined as a state of altered consciousness in which the body and mind are less receptive to external stimuli. While you sleep, your body experiences enhanced relaxation, resulting in decreased muscle contraction and alertness.

But while it may feel like you simply fall into a state of unconsciousness for the night until you wake up the next morning, this actually isn’t the case. Instead, sleep is maintained through the repetition of your roughly 90-minute sleep cycle, with each stage offering unique benefits and functions:

  • Light sleep (stage 1) — During this first stage of the sleep cycle, your brain and muscle activity will begin to slow, aside from the occasional muscle spasm. Additionally, it is common for people to maintain regular muscle tone and breathing rate during this first stage. On average, light sleep only takes up 5% (1-5 minutes) of every sleep cycle throughout the night.

  • Deeper sleep (stage 2) — After stage one, you enter the second stage of sleep, where you will spend most of your time throughout the night. Starting at 25 minutes in the first sleep cycle but lengthening with every following cycle to take up 45% of your total sleep time, deeper sleep is essential for maintaining sleep and memory consolidation. Stage 2 is commonly accompanied by changes in your brain activity as well as the slowing of your breathing and heart rate.

  • Deepest non-REM sleep (stage 3) — Also referred to as slow-wave sleep, people in stage 3 of their sleep cycle are difficult to rouse. During this stage, there is an increased presence of low-frequency delta waves in brain activity. On average, deep non-REM sleep takes up 25% of a person’s nightly sleep, lasting anywhere from 20-40 minutes per cycle.

  • Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (stage 4) — The most well-known stage of your sleep cycle, REM sleep makes up 25% of your sleep. During REM sleep, your brain activity picks back up from the previous stage, while your body experiences a period of temporary paralysis (excluding the muscles that control your breathing and the muscles in your eyes). As a result, it is common for people in REM sleep to experience rapid eye movement behind their closed eyelids, which is where this stage gets its name!

 

Throughout a good night’s sleep, the average person will move through 4-5 full sleep cycles (progressing in the order of N1, N2, N3, N2, REM) to rest and restore their body and mind for the following day. 

What happens when you don’t get enough quality sleep?

As you can see, paying attention to your sleep schedule is more important than most people know — and unfortunately, many people worldwide (roughly 62% of the global population) aren’t getting regular quality sleep.

With modern life and technology encouraging everyone to stay up later, it should be no surprise that more people are beginning to develop serious health complications as a result of their poor sleep hygiene. Despite how minor losing an hour or two of sleep every night may seem, research shows that there can be serious health consequences to chronic bad sleep:

  • Sleep disturbances increase your risk of Type 2 diabetes — Recent studies have found that poor sleep habits are connected to insulin resistance, one of the primary factors that can cause a person to develop Type 2 diabetes. If not corrected, even as few as 4-5 days of poor sleep can lead to a decrease in insulin sensitivity, which can impact glucose tolerance leading to an increased risk of being diagnosed with prediabetes.

  • Poor sleep affects your mental health — In a 2021 study of over 250,000 American adults, it was found that people who regularly got six or fewer hours of sleep per night were 2.5 times more likely to experience frequent episodes of mental distress, compared to those who got more than six hours a night.

  • Sleep deprivation increases your risk of heart disease — Poor sleep hygiene is connected to an increase in your sympathetic nervous system activity (your fight or flight response). Because of this, chronic sleep deprivation and its effect on our nervous system have been found to increase a person’s risk of developing serious cardiovascular conditions, including hypertension, coronary artery disease, and more.

Cardiac health and sleep

As the number of people living with insomnia-related health conditions continues to rise, researchers are eager to learn more about the physiological connection between sleep and health.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death worldwide, being responsible for 17.9 million deaths in 2019 alone. As the number of people diagnosed with heart disease continues to rise, medical providers have determined some of the most common risk factors for these conditions, one of which is chronically poor sleep.

In a 2022 study, it was found that, regardless of a person’s race or sex, people who experienced more regular sleep disturbances were at a greater risk of developing heart disease by the time they entered middle adulthood.

Interestingly, despite the increase in research in this area, scientists are still unsure of the exact mechanism that connects poor sleep to cardiac disease — though some studies have suggested that prolonged inflammation from poor sleep could contribute to heart damage and disease. But, while more research is needed to determine the specific connection between sleep and heart health, it is clear that sprucing up your sleep hygiene and correcting poor sleep habits are great ways to reduce your risk of experiencing cardiovascular episodes later in life.

5 tips for supporting improved sleep hygiene

If reading this article has made you want to prioritize your sleep more, here are some helpful tips to get you started! 

Everyone knows the feeling of lying in bed, tossing and turning, unable to sleep — and while this is not always preventable, there are some small changes you can make to your current nighttime routine to reduce your risk of having as many sleepless nights. 

With this in mind, here are some tips for improving your sleep hygiene and overall sleep quality:

  • Build consistency into your sleep routine

Often easier said than done, sticking to a more consistent sleep routine can help your body have an easier time falling and staying asleep. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day (including on the weekends), as this can help prevent over- and under-sleeping throughout your busy work week.

  • Create a comfortable sleeping environment

When it’s time to head to bed, ensure that your surrounding environment is comfortable and inviting, as this can help to encourage better sleep. Consider the amount of light, ambient temperature, airflow, and sounds in your bedroom, as well as the type of bedding you use, because these are all important components of a cozy and relaxing sleep environment.

  • Reduce exposure to electronics before bed

As tempting as it can be to bring your phone or iPad to bed, do your best to resist this urge! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), blue light emitted from electronic devices has been known to interfere with your circadian rhythm (your internal clock for waking and sleeping). Reducing your exposure to blue light before bed can make falling asleep easier and faster.

  • Adjust your diet before sleep

What you eat and drink throughout the day has a lasting impact on your overall sleep quality. To encourage better sleep, avoid caffeinated foods or beverages for at least six hours before sleeping and opt out of eating heavy or sugary meals before bedtime.

  • Increase your daily exercise level

When in doubt, sweat it out! Increasing your daily exercise (whether it be through going on a nightly walk or taking a group exercise class) can help make your body feel more tired and ready to sleep.

Putting it all together

When it comes to staying healthy and preventing the development of serious cardiovascular disease, it turns out that some extra sleep is never a bad idea!

As an essential part of your overall health and wellness, sleep plays a crucial role in reducing your risk of experiencing life-threatening health conditions later in life. When you slip into chronically poor sleep habits, what may feel like just a loss of a few hours of sleep actually does more damage than you may have thought — proving how important prioritizing your sleep is.

Hopefully, this article has helped you feel more educated and empowered when it comes to making healthy sleep habits a part of your daily routine. So give one (or more) of these sleep tips a try, and enjoy your next visit to dreamland!

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Claire is a registered nurse based in Alberta, Canada. She is a certified operating room nurse and enjoys creating educational content for her patients.