How Does Sleep Affect Your Heart Health?

By Gretchen Benson, HONU healthcare project manager 


Sleep has long been associated with health, but over the past decade there has been an increased focus on the impact of sleep on heart health. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that there may be a direct link between lack of sleep and calcium build-up in the arteries, leading to the plaques that can break apart and cause heart attacks and strokes. Study participants who slept less than five hours at night were the most susceptible to plaque build-up.


A 2011 population study of more than 50,000 people found that people who suffer from insomnia -- trouble falling or staying asleep -- may be at significantly greater risk. Insomnia, which affects up to one in three American adults, can be either acute (short-term episodes of sleeplessness) or chronic (sleeplessness lasting for months or years).


In the study, people who reported they had trouble falling or staying asleep had a 45 percent greater risk of a heart attack compared to people who reported they regularly fall asleep without trouble.


More research is needed on exactly how sleep disturbances affect heart health. However, the growing number of studies that associate sleep and heart health point to sleep as yet another risk factor to consider in addition to the more common risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.


What can you do if you have trouble sleeping?

  • Track your sleep. Just like most health behaviors, tracking your sleep has been found to be really helpful. Keep track of your bedtime and wake time and how you feel when you wake up in the morning (i.e., are you still tired?). This can help you understand if you are really sleeping enough.
  • Create a good sleep environment. Make your bedroom cooler, darker, quieter. Avoid caffeine and stimulants before bedtime.

Talk to your doctor. If you are struggling to sleep well or enough, talk to your health care provider. Bring your sleep journal with you to fully explain your sleep patterns.