Don’t snooze on this! Study reveals mild sleep deprivation could cause heart disease

NEW YORK — Are you one of the many Americans who often find themselves burning the midnight oil and unable to get a good night’s sleep? About one-third of Americans are regularly skimping on sleep, only managing to get five to six hours of rest each night instead of the recommended seven to eight hours. Researchers from Columbia University discovered that even a relatively mild sleep deficit can significantly increase the risk of developing heart disease later in life.

“This is some of the first direct evidence to show that mild chronic sleep deficits cause heart disease,” says study leader Dr. Sanja Jelic, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Columbia and professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, in a university release.

“Until now we’ve only seen associations between sleep and heart health in epidemiological studies, but these studies could be tainted by many confounders that cannot be identified and adjusted for. Only randomized controlled studies can determine if this connection is real and what changes in the body caused by short sleep could increase heart disease.”

The researchers traced the absence of the antioxidant response in sleep-deprived cells to a cellular factor, NRF2, that becomes trapped in the cytoplasm
The researchers traced the absence of the antioxidant response in sleep-deprived cells to a cellular factor, NRF2, that becomes trapped in the cytoplasm. When damaging oxidants accumulate in cells, NRF2 usually moves into the nucleus (blue) to turn on the antioxidant response. After chronic sleep restriction (right image) the Cullin3 protein holds NRF2 (yellow) in the cytoplasm. (CREDIT: Columbia University Irving Medical Center)

Previous research on sleep has mainly focused on the effects of a few nights of severe sleep deprivation. This new study, though, aimed to mimic the sleep patterns of most adults who consistently wake up at the same time but occasionally stay up later than usual. The research involved nearly 1,000 women in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, with 35 healthy women who typically slept seven to eight hours each night participating in the 12-week study.

During the study, these women maintained their regular sleep schedules for six weeks, and for the subsequent six weeks, they went to bed 1.5 hours later than usual. Researchers closely monitored their sleep using wrist-worn sleep trackers.

After just six weeks of getting less sleep, the cells lining the participants’ blood vessels were exposed to harmful oxidants. Unlike well-rested cells, those subjected to sleep deprivation were unable to activate antioxidant responses to clear these harmful molecules. Consequently, these sleep-deprived cells became inflamed and dysfunctional, a critical early stage in the development of cardiovascular disease.

“Many problems could be solved if people sleep at least seven to eight hours per night,” notes Dr. Jelic. “People who are young and healthy need to know that if they keep getting less sleep than that, they’re aggravating their cardiovascular risk.”

This study adds to a growing body of evidence highlighting the link between sleep and heart health. Recent epidemiological studies have also suggested that inconsistent bedtimes may elevate the risk of heart disease. Dr. Jelic’s team is now working on designing a study to investigate whether irregular sleep patterns affect vascular cells in a manner similar to chronic but regular short sleep.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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