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Could a Heart Condition Be Disrupting Your Sleep?

Too little sleep can make you cranky—and it may raise your risk for heart disease, too.

Updated on March 11, 2024

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We know our bodies need sleep, but have you ever considered just how important adequate sleep really is? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that most adults get between seven and nine hours each night.

Here's why: Sufficient sleep helps preserve your memory, can boost your mood, and may even aid in healthy weight loss. It can also benefit your heart. 

Here’s what you should know about the link between sleep and heart health. 

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Heart health and sleep go together

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," says Joanne Ilustre, DO, a cardiologist in Middletown, Delaware.

Research suggests that inadequate sleep can raise 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," explains Dr. Illustre.

But this connection works both ways—existing heart conditions can disrupt sleep, too. Chest pain, palpitations (a pounding or racing heartbeat), and trouble breathing are symptoms that can make falling and staying asleep a real challenge. 
 

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Heart failure

When you have heart failure, it means your heart is too weak to supply blood to the rest of your body. There are many different causes, including high blood pressure and coronary artery disease (CAD), the most common type of heart disease in the United States. CAD develops when fatty deposits called cholesterol plaque build up and narrow the arteries that bring blood to the heart, decreasing blood flow.

People with heart failure can have a number of symptoms, like fatigue and coughing. Difficulty breathing is another sign, and it 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 have breathing problems when it’s time to go to sleep, speak with your healthcare provider (HCP) and get prompt treatment if necessary. Keeping your head elevated with an extra pillow or two may be helpful in the meantime.

Be sure to let an HCP know if you have other problems sleeping at night, or if you snore. You may need to be tested for sleep apnea. That’s a separate condition in which your breathing repeatedly pauses or becomes shallow for brief periods of time during sleep, then restarts.

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Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is a form of heart disease in which the heart beats irregularly. People with this condition often experience a rapid heart rate. If left untreated, Afib could cause a stroke or heart failure.

How do you know if you have Afib? In some cases, the condition has no symptoms, and is instead detected during a routine exam. In other situations, you may experience a fluttering sensation in your chest, fatigue, difficulty breathing, weakness, or sweating.

People with sleep apnea (when your breathing repeatedly stops or becomes very shallow during sleep, then restarts), are at an increased risk for AFib. But the link goes both ways. People with AFib are also at higher risk of sleep apnea. It's not uncommon for periods of rapid heartbeat to wake you from a deep sleep.

Speak with an HCP if you think your sleep problems are a result of AFib. The condition can be managed with a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, and medical or surgical procedures.

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Angina

Angina is chest pain that occurs when blood flow to the heart is limited. Angina is most often caused by coronary artery disease (CAD), the most common form of heart disease and leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. But it can result from any condition that restricts the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart.

High blood pressure, diabetes (high blood sugar levels), smoking, lack of exercise, excess alcohol consumption, and high cholesterol (a type of fat in the blood) all contribute to narrowing of blood vessels.

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

Angina can keep you awake at night. Don’t let it—or those other symptoms—go unreported. Discuss them with your HCP.

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Proven ways to get more sleep

Heart problems and sleep are closely linked. If left untreated, they could spell trouble for your health.

If you suspect your heart is the cause of your sleep problems, tell an HCP 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." If your symptoms include difficulty breathing or chest pain, call 911.

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

To help increase the quality of your sleep, your HCP may also recommend developing a bedtime routine. Ilustre suggests:

  • 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
  • As you are able, exercising during the day rather than in the evening
Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Much Sleep Do I Need? Last reviewed September 14, 2022
Harvard Health Publishing. In search of sleep. June 2020.
Harvard Health Publishing. Sleep problems, heart disease often in bed together. May 2007.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High Blood Pressure: How Does Sleep Affect Your Heart Health? Last reviewed January 4, 2021. 
LE Laugsand, LB Strand, et al. Insomnia and the risk of incident heart failure: a population study. European Heart Journal. Volume 35, Issue 21, 1 June 2014, Pages 1382–1393.
MS Lincoln, EB Loucks. Sleep Duration, Insomnia, and Coronary Heart Disease Among Postmenopausal Women in the Women's Health Initiative. Journal of Women’s Health. 2013 Jun; 22(6): 477–486.
American Heart Association. What is Heart Failure? May 31, 2017.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Sleep Apnea. Last updated March 24, 2022.
American Heart Association. What is Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF)? July 31, 2016 
Mayo Clinic. Atrial fibrillation. October 19, 2021. 
E Marulanda-Londoño, & S Chaturvedi. The Interplay between Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Atrial Fibrillation. Frontiers in Neurology, 8, 668. December 11, 2017.
American Heart Association. Non-surgical Procedures for Atrial Fibrillation (AFib or AF). July 31, 2016. 
Mayo Clinic. Angina. March 30, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease Facts. October 14, 2022.
MedlinePlus. Coronary Artery Disease. November 21, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Know Your Risk for Heart Disease. Last reviewed December 9, 2019.
Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Twelve Simple Tips to Improve Your Sleep. December 18, 2007.
Mayo Clinic. Atrial fibrillation. October 19, 2021.

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