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Insomnia doesn't just make you tired -- it may also give you heart issues.
By Markham Heid
As if physical fatigue and a foggy brain weren't bad enough, restless nights may also harm your heart. A new multi-year study published in the European Heart Journal finds evidence of a substantial link between insomnia and the risk of heart failure.
For more than 11 years, a study team from several Scandinavian universities tracked the sleeping habits and heart failure rates of more than 50,000 men and women. The researchers focused on the three major hallmarks of insomnia: trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, and waking up still feeling fatigued.
Unfortunately, the results of their analysis are enough to keep a person up at night: Among participants who experienced just one of those symptoms "occasionally" or "often," rates of heart failure increased 5% and 14%, respectively, compared to those who didn't struggle with sleep. But for those who experienced all three symptoms frequently, heart failure rates more than tripled, says study co-author Lars Laugsand, PhD, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
"Insomnia is a disorder marked by hyperarousal," Laugsand says. So instead of the restful state you should experience while sleeping, insomnia increases activity in your sympathetic nervous system, which in turn releases a flood of stress hormones into your bloodstream. This hormonal surge appears to boost blood pressure, which explains why periods of insomnia can make you feel like your heart is pounding or your body is overheating.
These stress hormones also increase inflammation levels and spur the release of catecholamines, a group of compounds that previous research has tied to an increased risk of heart disease, Laugsand adds.
What can you do about it? Well, get more high-quality sleep. While that's a lot easier said than done, Laugsand recommends focusing on the following four aspects of your sleep regimen:
Behavior. Avoid naps and spend at least 30 minutes relaxing before bed. That means no TV, computers, or digital devices that may keep you wired or stimulated. And establish a sleep routine that you stick with: Wake up and go to bed around the same times every day.
Environment. Keep your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible, and turn the thermostat down. Previous research has shown that if your head is cool, you tend to fall asleep more quickly.
Diet. Avoid caffeine 6 to 8 hours before bed, and go easy on the alcohol, which is a major sleep disrupter. Hunger can also keep you up at night. So if it's been a while since you last ate, a light snack can help you nod off.
Exercise. If you don't tire yourself out during the day, it'll be tougher to fall asleep at night. Even a low-key workout routine, like walking or gentle yoga, can help.