Sleep for Your Heart’s Sake!

Time spent in bed accounts for nearly 1/3 of our existence. But when it comes to health, sleep is generally not regarded to be as important as our diet and physical activity behaviors. 

With contemporary research, we are discovering that our sleep behaviors impact our eating behaviors, brain function, emotional well-being, and may have significant impact on our lifespan. There is almost no component of health that sleep doesn’t directly impact. A recently published study suggests that our sleep behaviors may even have profound influence on our cardiovascular health.


In order to examine the association between sleep duration and cardiovascular health, researchers used data collected from the PESA (Progression of Early Subclinical Atherosclerosis) study, a study involving 3,974 participants with an average age of 46 years old. The participants in PESA, all without diagnosed heart conditions, were asked to wear an ActiGraph (a device that continuously measures movement) for seven days and then undergo several imaging procedures (including 3D heart ultrasound and cardiac CT scans) in order to gather data regarding the prevalence and rate of progression of vascular lesions associated with atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries).  

Following the data collection, the researchers separated participants into four groups based on the ActiGraph information: very short sleep (average duration under six hours), short sleep (average between six and seven hours), reference sleep (avg. between seven and eight hours), and long sleep (average over eight hours). The data was then adjusted for various conventional risk factors for heart disease, such as BMI, blood pressure, and diagnosis with correlated health conditions. Participants also completed a questionnaire regarding lifestyle behaviors, but that data was not included in the analysis. 


Data analysis confirmed the hypothesis that sleep duration has a strong association with risk for development of atherosclerosis. After controlling for associated risk factors, participants in the very short sleep group exhibited a 27 percent increased risk for atherosclerosis than those is the reference sleep group. Quality of sleep, defined by the number of times a participant woke during sleep, also showed a strong association to atherosclerosis risk, as those with poor sleep quality had a 34 percent increased risk for atherosclerosis compared to those with good sleep quality. Interestingly, excessive sleep (averaging more than eight hours per night) also showed a slight correlation with increased risk for atherosclerosis. Although it was not the primary aim of their analysis, researchers noted that shorter sleep duration with minimized waking may be able to counteract the effects of limited sleep length, suggesting that sleep quality may be even more important than quantity as long as one is not experiencing an abnormal level of sleep deprivation (under six hours per night).   It is important to note that this study relied on objective measures to determine length and quality of sleep, while most previous research was dependent on self-reported information gathered from questionnairesAlthough intense statistical analysis was not conducted, it was further noted that there appeared to be a higher incidence of alcohol and caffeine use in those with short and disrupted sleep, a possible confounding factor. Researchers hope to continue examining the influence of sleep behaviors on cardiovascular health, focusing on controlling for other lifestyle factors. 


Getting your heart rate up with daily exercise and consuming adequate levels of essential fatty acids are important elements in a healthy lifestyle, but don’t discount the significance of your bedtime routine. Put the smartphone on the bedside table, diffuse your favorite rest-promoting essential oil, and hit the REM cycle to support cardiovascular health.