Why is sleep important for your heart health?

January 2023

This article is provided by Heart & Stroke

A good night’s sleep on a regular basis makes a huge difference in your outlook, in your energy levels and in your overall health. It’s important for heart health too! But quality sleep can be tough to find sometimes, for a variety of reasons. People in Canada under 65 should be aiming for seven to nine hours a night, and those over 65, seven to eight hours. Here’s how and why you should make sleep a priority.

How does sleep affect your heart health?

Over time, frequent poor or insufficient sleep can have a big impact on your heart health because it stresses your body in different ways:

  • Increases your risk of heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular disease
  • Increases your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary artery disease
  • Increases stress and depression
  • Makes you too tired to make healthy lifestyle choices, and makes you less able to cope with day-to-day challenges
  • Changes hormones that affect your eating habits, which in turn can lead to weight gain

When it comes to your heart - shorter sleep increases risk. For example, research shows that habitually sleeping less than seven hours a day increases risk of high blood pressure, and the risk is even greater if you are getting less than five hours per night, and a woman. 

Habitually sleeping less than 7 hours increases risk of high blood pressure, and risk goes up if you sleep less than 5 hours!

What is affecting your sleep quality?

If you can identify some sleep thieves, you may be able to take steps to get more quality sleep in your life. Some factors that may be affecting your sleep are:

  • Medical conditions and medication
  • Snoring
  • Sleep apnea
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Pain
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Needing to go to the bathroom
  • Life stresses
  • Life stage factors like shift work, pregnancy, menopause, aging or caregiving
  • Environmental factors like heat, light (including light from TVs, phones and other devices), noise, and mattress or pillow quality
  • Restless pets and human bed partners

Tip: Sleep diary 101

If you often have trouble sleeping, keep a sleep diary for a few weeks. Tracking helps you see if you need to adjust some habits or talk to your doctor about making changes or seeking treatment. Increase your awareness by writing it down or track you sleep using a digital health tool like a smartwatch.

Try answering these 4 questions each night:

  1. How many hours are you spending in bed?
  2. How many times you were awake, and for how long (or how long does it take you to fall asleep)?
  3. What woke you?
  4. How would you rate the overall quality of your sleep?

How to get better sleep

According to sleep experts, there are a number of things you can do to improve your sleep.

  • Aim to sleep eight hours per night
  • Sleep in a cool, dark and quiet bedroom
  • Only use your bedroom for sleep and intimacy (don’t watch TV, use the computer or do other work in your bedroom)
  • Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day (yes, even on weekends)
  • Finish eating one to two hours before you go to bed; however, if you’re hungry, have a light snack like a piece of fruit
  • Skip the screens (TV, tablet, phone etc) before bedtime and if you wake up at night (why? Because the blue light they emit makes your brain think it’s daytime)
  • Don’t drink alcohol within two hours of bedtime, or caffeine within six hours of bedtime
  • Take a warm bath or shower to get your body to the right sleep-time temperature
  • Don’t smoke or vape
  • Get more physical activity throughout the day
  • Breathe, stretch and relax before bed, through yoga
  • Listen to relaxing music, pink noise (e.g. rainfall or waves) or white noise (e.g. static)

Your bedroom makeover

If you’re going to spend eight hours in bed (that’s a third of your life!) it only makes sense to make it as comfy and sleep-friendly as possible. Some ideas to keep in mind:

  • Think cool: Set your thermostat low. According to the Sleep Foundation and other experts, aim for 15-19°C
  • Make it dark: Install blackout curtains if light is coming through the windows
  • Consider scents: Aromas such as lavender help to promote sleepiness
  • Check your basics: Choose a mattress and a pillow that provide good support and suit your preferred sleep position. Research has shown that the right mattress can reduce back pain and improve sleep quality.
  • Rethink your night light: If you need to get up to use the bathroom or check on a child, use a light with a dim red, yellow or orange light to help you see your way but not wake you up too much

Two things you can try when you can’t sleep

  1. Get up after 20 minutes and do something non-stimulating like reading or listening to a podcast until you feel sleepy, or try some relaxation techniques like counting breaths or progressive muscle relaxation
  2. If you are feeling worried or thinking about your mental to-do list, write it down to help your brain put the ideas aside for the night

Here are a few helpful articles if you want to learn more

Sometimes your sleep issues require more help—for example, if you’re in pain or have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea. Talk to your health care provider about your next steps.

© 2022, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

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