Could a Heart Condition Be Sabotaging Your Sleep?

Too little sleep can make you cranky, but it may up your risk for heart disease, too.

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By Taylor Lupo

We know our bodies need sleep, but have you ever considered just how important adequate shuteye really is? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults get between seven and nine hours a night.

Here's why: Sufficient sleep helps keep your memory sharp, can boost your mood and may even aid in healthy weight loss.

That's not all. Sleep has some specific benefits for your heart, and getting too little can damage this vital organ. The connection doesn't stop there. Certain heart conditions, like heart failure and angina, can actually disrupt sleep.

We spoke with Dr. Joanne Ilustre, DO, a cardiologist with Saint Francis Healthcare in Wilmington, Delaware, about the link between sleep and heart health. Here's what she had to say.

Heart health and sleep—a two-way street

2 / 6 Heart health and sleep—a two-way street

Sleep is the body's way of replenishing energy for the next day. "Too little sleep doesn't allow the body to reset, and all the healing that needs to be done at night doesn't get done," Ilustre says.

Research suggests inadequate slumber can up your risk for heart conditions. "There's been some association with high blood pressure, heart failure and stroke in people who get less than six hours of sleep," she adds. Results from a 2012 survey of more than 3,000 people over the age of 45 suggest the same.

But, this association works both ways—existing heart conditions can disrupt sleep, too. Chest pain, heart palpitations and trouble breathing are symptoms of certain conditions that can make falling asleep and staying asleep a real challenge. Learn how to recognize the signs of heart-related sleep problems and get tips to rest easier.

Heart failure

3 / 6 Heart failure

Heart failure is a condition characterized by a heart that's too weak to supply blood to the rest of the body. It can be caused by a number of factors, including high blood pressure or coronary artery disease, where substances like cholesterol or plaque buildup in the arteries, reducing blood flow to the heart.

People with the condition experience a number of symptoms, like fatigue and coughing. Shortness of breath is another sign, one which may worsen when you lie down.

"Heart conditions like heart failure can disrupt your sleep,” Ilustre says. “When your heart's not pumping well enough, fluid can back up into your lungs, causing you to have trouble breathing."

If you experience difficulty breathing when it's time to hit the hay, speak with your doctor, and get prompt treatment when necessary. Keeping your head elevated with an extra pillow or two may also be helpful.

Be sure to let your doctor know if you have other problems sleeping at night, or if you snore. You may need to be tested for sleep apnea, a separate condition in which your breathing pauses or becomes shallow during periods of sleep.

Atrial fibrillation

4 / 6 Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a form of heart disease in which the heart beats irregularly. Although the heart can beat too slowly, people with this type of arrhythmia often experience a rapid heart rate. If left untreated, atrial fibrillation can cause a stroke or heart failure.

So, how do you know if you have AFib? It's possible the condition has no symptoms, and is instead detected during a routine exam. In other cases, you may experience a fluttering sensation in your chest, fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness or sweating.

People with sleep apnea are at an increased risk for AFib. But the link goes both ways. While sleep conditions can disrupt your heart health, the health of your heart can also impact your sleep. It's not uncommon for periods of rapid heartbeat to wake you from a deep slumber.

Speak with your doctor if you think your restless nights are a result of this condition. AFib can be managed with a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, electrical cardioversion and surgical procedures.


5 / 6 Angina

Angina is a term that signifies chest pain as a result of limited blood flow to the heart. Angina is most commonly caused by coronary artery disease (CAD), but can be the result of any condition that restricts the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart.

Coronary artery disease is the most common form of heart disease, the leading cause of death among men and women in the US. CAD develops when cholesterol, plaque or other substances build up and narrow the arteries, restricting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart.

High blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, lack of exercise, excess alcohol consumption and high cholesterol all contribute to inflammation in these passageways.

The most obvious sign of angina is pain in the left side of your chest, but it may be accompanied by other symptoms. Fatigue, nausea, dizziness and pain in the arms, neck, jaw and shoulder may also signal a problem with your heart.

Falling asleep can be difficult when you don't feel well, so it's no surprise that this condition can disrupt your sleep. But don't let those sleepless nights or symptoms go unreported; discuss them with your doctor for possible treatment options and relief.

Proven ways to get more shut-eye

6 / 6 Proven ways to get more shut-eye

There are a number of things that can keep you up at night, like bad sleep hygiene and sleep disorders. Heart conditions and sleep are also closely linked, and if left untreated, could spell trouble for your health.

If you suspect your heart is the cause of your restless nights, or you experience symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain, be sure to tell your doctor right away. "Be aware of the signs and symptoms," Ilustre recommends "Recognizing conditions and talking to your physician is the first step to better sleep."

Once diagnosed, these conditions can be managed with a combination of medications, lifestyle changes and surgery.

Your doctor may also recommend a developing a bedtime routine. Ilustre recommends:

  • Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
  • Avoiding alcohol late at night
  • Skipping coffee or other caffeinated beverages after noontime
  • Exercising during the day 

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