Newsroom | Community Health

  • Share to Linked in
  • Share to Facebook
Older couple uses their hands to make a heart sign

The Link Between Sleep Problems and Heart Attacks

By Derek Robinson, Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois  

Getting enough sleep is essential to heart health. Too little sleep and untreated sleep problems are linked to conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.

Getting seven to nine hours of quality sleep every night is needed for a healthy heart, but 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep disorders preventing a good night’s sleep, according to the American Heart Association.

Of the more than 80 different sleep disorders that inhibit sleep, the most common are insomnia, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea occurs when your body repeatedly stops and restarts breathing, creating a lack of oxygen. Central sleep apnea is when your brain has trouble regulating your breathing. Obstructed sleep apnea is when the soft tissue in your throat relaxes and makes it difficult to breathe. 

You may have obstructed sleep apnea if you snore loudly, gasp for air or have irregular breathing while you sleep. You may wake up with a headache or dry mouth and feel tired all day, have problems with concentration and memory, have mood and behavior changes, including irritability, anxiety or depression. If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor.

Sleep disorders other than apnea also can hurt your heart health. Lack of good quality sleep may cause cardiovascular disease risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. The stress on your body from insufficient sleep may contribute to depression, while poor diet and lifestyle choices can affect your cardiovascular health. 

Why don’t we get enough sleep? In addition to sleep disorders, what you consume — including medicines, food and drink — and when you have them can be factors. Working too hard, worrying, sleeping with the TV or lights on, and repeated trips to the bathroom also can rob you of sleep. 

If you aren’t sleepy when it’s time to go to bed, turn on peaceful, relaxing music, or white noise or a fan at low volume. It can help you relax and mask noises that would bother you. You can try progressive muscle relaxation which controls breathing and releases muscle tension. Another method, mindfulness meditation, quiets your thoughts and helps with sleep-related anxiety.

One in five people have difficulty getting back to sleep when they wake up at night. If this happens to you, try the techniques listed above, turn your alarm clock or smartphone away from you so you don’t keep checking the time — and turn off the TV.

Don’t just lie in bed if you can’t get to sleep. If you’ve been awake more than 20 minutes, leave the bedroom for a dark and comfortable place and do something quiet such as reading a book or listening to soft music. Then go back to bed when you’re feeling drowsy.

You can address lifestyle choices that are disrupting your sleep on your own. But if you’re concerned your sleep issues might cause a more serious medical condition, talk to your doctor.

Visit our website for more information about good sleep habits.

The above material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician. Physicians and other health care providers are encouraged to use their own best medical judgment based upon all available information and the condition of the patient in determining the best course of treatment. 

A Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association