DALLAS — Some people are natural night owls while others can’t help but rise with the sun. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, the American Heart Association wants everyone to prioritize getting a good night’s rest on a consistent basis. Sleeping a solid seven to nine hours nightly isn’t always easy, but your heart will thank you in the long run. Scientists report losing out on sleep can be a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
It isn’t just how long you sleep that matters. The quality of that sleep plays a key role, too. Both factors can significantly influence the heart, as well as overall health outcomes. Besides just increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke, inadequate sleep can also increase one’s risk of depression, cognitive decline and obesity.
“Getting a good night’s sleep every night is vital to cardiovascular health. Adults should aim for an average of 7-9 hours, and babies and kids need more depending on their age,” says Dr. Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Eileen M. Foell Professor of Heart Research and professor of preventive medicine, medicine and pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, in a statement. Lloyd-Jones is also a past volunteer president of the American Heart Association.
“Unfortunately, we know that as many as 1 in 3 people do not get their recommended amount of sleep each night,” he adds.
Findings recently published in the Journal of the American Heart Association even tell us that maintaining a consistent sleep pattern may play a big role in preventing cardiovascular disease. Study authors report falling asleep at different times or sleeping for inconsistent durations each night – even variations of just over two hours a night within the same week – were linked to developing hardened arteries, otherwise known as atherosclerosis.
“We know that people who get adequate sleep manage other health factors better as well, such as weight, blood sugar and blood pressure,” Dr. Lloyd-Jones explains. “The American Heart Association recently added sleep to the list of factors that support optimal cardiovascular health. We call these Life’s Essential 8, and they include: eating a healthy diet, not smoking or vaping, being physically active and getting adequate sleep, along with controlling your blood pressure and maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol and lipids, healthy blood sugar levels and a healthy weight.”
Dr. Lloyd-Jones stresses that even small shifts in daily habits can make a big difference and promote better sleep quality. Here are some tips from the AHA:
- Make healthy living a habit: Eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and do your best to manage stress. A healthy lifestyle supports a healthier night’s sleep.
- Set the alarm – for morning and night: Stick to specific times to go to bed and wake up each day and commit to a consistent sleep schedule as much as possible. Besides a typical alarm clock in the morning, you can also try using a ‘bedtime alarm’ to indicate it’s time to start winding down.
- Establish bedtime habits: Once your bedtime alarm goes off, move into a familiar, set routine; brush your teeth, wash your face or take a warm bath.
- Relax and unwind: Take a few minutes to de-stress. This may include reading, journaling, meditating or listening to music to ease into a good night’s sleep.
- Take a technology break: A bedroom free of light and technology is much more conducive to better sleep. Keep your phone and other electronic devices far away from the bed. Consider logging off your electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime as a rule.
For many people, initially falling asleep is the toughest part of getting a solid night’s rest. Still, researchers warn against the use of sleep supplements and say they should only be used sparingly and under the care of a doctor.
If an individual is consistently finding it difficult to sleep, they should consider the possibility they may have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia. Such conditions can also increase a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke, and should thus be taken very seriously and treated appropriately.
“While it may take a while to make falling asleep and staying asleep a habit, taking the time to develop and then stick with a good, natural bedtime routine is important,” Dr. Lloyd-Jones concludes. “When first starting out, don’t lie in bed tossing and turning if you’re restless. Get up and try a few things to sooth your mind, maybe write out a to-do list for the next day, read a few pages of a good book or do some yoga stretches. Just make one small change at a time, adding a new one every week or so until you find what works best for you. Soon you’ll be sleeping soundly through the night and waking up refreshed each morning, knowing you’re being good to yourself and to your heart.”