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Five Ways to Sleep Well and Protect Your Heart

Poor sleep can worsen the risk factors for heart disease. Find out what you can do to improve both the quality of your sleep and how much sleep you get.

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What the Experts Do
Just Say No to TV Binge-Watching

“I have to remind myself, just like my patients, to make sleep a priority,” says Johns Hopkins neurologist and sleep specialist Rachel E. Salas, M.D. “It’s so easy to say, “I’ll just catch up on some work for awhile or watch a TV-show-a-thon on my DVR.”

She finds that the simple act of telling herself that sleep is important helps her choose it over other temptations. Also key for her: Being consistent about when she sleeps. “I used to think I could make up for sleep on the weekends, but doing that negatively impacts sleep quality,” she says. Now she tries to have a consistent bedtime and waking time seven days a week.

“Sleep is something all humans do—most not very well,” says Johns Hopkins neurologist and sleep specialist Rachel E. Salas, M.D. When you don’t get enough good-quality sleep for any reason, whether because of an untreated sleep disorder or simply not getting enough sleep, you raise your odds of developing many conditions that can lead to or worsen heart disease.

Poor sleep can cause excess weight gain, for example. “If you’re tired, you’re less active. Too little sleep also affects the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which influence appetite and metabolism,” Salas says. “So even if you eat right and exercise, you can gain weight if you have too little sleep or have an undiagnosed, untreated sleep disorder.”

Sometimes the effects of poor sleep quality are less direct and obvious. Poor sleep can impact mood, which affects work and home life, and can lead to or worsen anxiety and depression, which are risk factors for heart disease. Poor sleep may lead to erectile dysfunction, another common relationship stressor, she adds.

Two common sleep disorders, insomnia and sleep apnea, can lead to other heart risks when left undiagnosed or untreated. Sleep apnea is linked to a host of heart risks, including diabetes, hypertension, arrhythmia, obesity, stroke, and heart failure.

Most people need seven to nine hours of good-quality sleep per night. “Even an extra 15 minutes can make a huge difference,” Salas says. What helps?

1. Look into symptoms of possible sleep problems.

Do you wake up tired, even though you think you got a long night’s sleep? Do you struggle to stay awake when driving or while sitting in a meeting? Does your bed partner say you snore? Do you wake at night and take at least 30 minutes to fall back asleep, three times a week or more?

Talk to your health care provider, who may refer you to a sleep specialist. A formal sleep evaluation may be needed to observe your sleep.

2. Have a consistent bedtime routine.

Try to go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time every night. Wear special sleep clothes (or simply an undershirt and understhorts) rather than sleeping in the same clothes you wore while awake (even if they’re your comfortable jogging sweats). These things provide cues to tell your brain it’s time to sleep, Salas says.

3. Keep potential sleep-stealers out of the bedroom.

“Sleep environment is a huge factor in getting good sleep,” Salas says. Lights and electronics are among the worst offenders. Avoid having a TV or computer in your bedroom, or reading at night with an e-reader 30 minutes before you turn in. If you’re prone to allergies (which can cause a stuffy nose, breathing through the mouth, and a constant need to wake up and drink water), remove the carpets or vacuum them regularly and change bed sheets weekly so dust doesn’t accumulate and bother you. Ask your doctor about taking antihistamines.

4. Drink less, exercise more.

Avoid a nightcap: It’s a myth that alcohol will help you sleep better. Daytime caffeinated beverages matter too. It can take your body six hours or longer to rid itself of caffeine. Getting exercise during the day can help ready you for nighttime sleep. (Just get your health care provider’s OK before starting any new exercise program.)

5. Know that sleep and heart health work both ways.

If you’re already being treated for heart issues, you may experience worse sleep as a result. The timing of medications such as beta blockers, for example, can impact your sleep, Salas says. Pain can also worsen sleep, and a condition such as heart failure can make it difficult to lie flat. Report sleep problems to your heart care team to look for solutions.

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