Sleep Off Track? New Research Suggests Irregular Sleep Schedules May Impact Your Heart

With more folks working from home these days, and schedules changing to accommodate closed childcare centers, schools, and camps, it’s no wonder many people are finding it difficult to get a healthy night’s sleep.

Because sleep impacts so many of the body’s systems, it plays an essential role in human physiology. The benefits of good sleep are not only better mood and alertness, but good sleep also supports your immune response, cognition, memory, mental stability, and, it turns out, the health of your heart.

New research on the ties between sleep and cardiovascular health

New research from Harvard Medical School has found that irregular sleep patterns harm cardiovascular health, particularly in adults older than 45. Their study followed nearly 2,000 men and women aged 45 to 84 who did not have any prior cardiovascular disease. Researchers monitored each participant’s sleep patterns for 7 days using a device strapped to their wrist. Each person also underwent an in-home sleep test and filled out a questionnaire-based sleep assessment.

The study’s findings were dramatic: over the subsequent 5 years, those with irregular sleep patterns had twice the rate of heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular disease than participants with regular sleep patterns. The correlation was the strongest for minority populations, particularly African Americans.

Research published online by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that older adults with an irregular sleep schedule had nearly double the risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared with those who had a regular sleep schedule…even after study authors adjusted for cardiovascular risk factors, average sleep duration, and other sleep problems, such as obstructive sleep apnea.”—Harvard Medical School.

Why does an irregular sleep schedule cause an increased risk of cardiovascular disease? Irregular sleep impacts the body’s circadian rhythms—and those rhythms directly affect the cardiovascular system’s health. Circadian disruptions change the rhythms of the autonomic nervous system, which control blood pressure and heart rate.

Here’s how to get your sleep back on track

There are numerous techniques for getting your sleep schedule on track, as well as helpful tips for falling asleep in the first place. Here are some of the ways to improve your sleep hygiene:

Move your body!

Exercise improves the quality and duration of sleep, and it also increases the time you spend in deep sleep—the period during the night when the body restores and repairs itself. Expending physical energy during the daytime means you’re better able to wind down when nighttime comes.

Take in the news in smaller doses

A relentless onslaught of upsetting and unsettling news is bound to wind up your mind and amplify worries. Instead, stay informed by consuming smaller doses of news at a designated time early in the day and avoid overwhelming yourself with news close to bedtime. (You can always tune back in when you feel less stressed!)

Get plenty of natural light

Light regulates your sleep and wake cycles and sets your body’s circadian clock. The body gets confused if it takes in too much light for too many consecutive hours and vice versa. (This is the reason behind jet lag.) Because exposure to natural light during daylight hours—especially in the morning—keeps your body’s clock in sync, it also impacts the quality and duration of sleep at night.

Limit screens and blue light

Most of us spend many hours a day glued to screens—and your computer, phone, tablet, and television emits blue light wavelengths, which have a powerful effect on your sleep-wake cycle and your internal body clock. Too much blue light too close to bedtime decreases melatonin levels and derails your body’s natural tendency to feel sleepy. Besides reducing screen time, you can also change computer and device settings to dim the screen.

Caffeine cut-off

If your sleep pattern needs regulating, drinking or eating anything caffeinated is going to make your job that much harder. If you can’t quit your morning cup of coffee, then commit to avoiding caffeine after midday.

Winding down

Give your body and brain the right cues that, as bedtime approaches, it’s time to wind down. Incorporate activities that promote relaxation into your nighttime routine: a warm bath or shower, a good book, a cup of Sleepytime tea, meditation, and stretching are all great options.

Comfortable sleep environment

If your body is comfortable, you improve your chances of getting quality sleep. Are your pillow and mattress working for you? What about bedroom temperature? (Cooler environments promote better sleep.) Consider blackout curtains or some way to block light from waking you too early. Methods for masking sounds outside—a white noise machine or phone app or a fan can help too.

Good sleep benefits are worth the effort it takes to change bad habits and replace them with ones that improve your sleep hygiene. Your heart, immune system, nervous system, and brain (as well as the people you live with!) will thank you.

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