One of the biggest issues for Americans seems to be a lack of sleep. Whether it’s due to increased stress, trying to pack too many activities (or TV shows) into too few hours, or basic physiological functions that make it difficult to fall asleep and/or stay asleep, the fact is most of us are not getting enough shuteye.
But too little sleep isn’t the only bump in the night. There’s also the issue of sleep apnea, which occurs when a person experiences a partial or even complete collapse of their pharynx, the part of your throat that is directly behind your mouth and nasal cavity. This collapse can deprive your body of oxygen for short periods of time, something known medically as intermittent hypoxia.
Scary, right? Well it gets even scarier. After looking at heaps and heaps of studies on sleep deprivation and sleep apnea, researchers have found that these sleep problems can increase your risk for serious, even fatal cardiovascular conditions.
What’s Going On When You Sleep
While on the surface it may seem nonsensical that how much or little you sleep would impact cardiovascular disease risk, consider the following. When you don’t get enough sleep or have disturbed sleep, several things occur in your body.
First, when you are in REM sleep, you tend to have muscle twitches, irregular breathing, rapid eye movement (hence REM), and increases in both blood pressure and pulse rates. Conversely, non-REM sleep is marked by a decrease in heart rate and systolic blood pressure (the top number), as well as an increased emphasis on natural variations within your pulse rate.
These changes during REM sleep are correlated with your sympathetic nervous system, which controls your internal organs. Non-REM sleep is associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with activities that have to do primarily with rest and digestion.
While most people aim for more REM sleep, the reality is a lack of sleep or sleep disturbances increase sympathetic activity, including cardiovascular activity such as heart rate and blood pressure. Increases in both of these are contraindicated for heart health.
Second, sleep problems increase oxidative stress and inflammation. As oxidative stress relates to free radical damage, it is often accompanied by chronic, systemic inflammation. And this dangerous duo is well-known to increase your risk for every cardiac condition under the sun, from heart attack and stroke to oxidized cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Third, there is a clear connection between sleep apnea in particular and obesity. While there seems to be a bit of a “chicken or the egg” issue here (does sleep apnea contribute to obesity or does obesity contribute to sleep apnea), what we do know is that obesity is a primary cardiovascular disease risk factor.
Given these three factors, it makes sense that sleep problems and heart health go hand-in-hand.
Sleep and Heart Health
When it comes to specific cardiovascular conditions, different studies have shown the clear connection between heart health or dysfunction and sleep:
- The hypoxia caused by sleep apnea increases blood pressure.
- Sleep apnea can increase the accumulation of plaque in the arteries, which can lead to atherosclerosis.
- Sleep apnea has been associated with stroke is both cohort and population studies. 
- Sleep apnea is also associated with an increase in death due to cardiovascular events in both clinical trials and population studies. 
Given all of these findings, researchers concluded, “There is accumulating evidence that sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may profoundly affect cardiovascular control.”
Get Those ZZZs
When it comes to sleep, clearly there’s a lot more at stake than simply being rested. If sleep is an issue for you, try these tips:
Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary: The room should be very dark and free from TVs and computers. You may also want to include a white noise machine to drown out noise and help lull you to sleep.
Practice stress reduction techniques before bed: You can try meditation, prayer or even something as simple as controlled breathing exercises.
Try melatonin: This nutrient regulates your body’s natural rhythms, including waking and sleeping. It is produced in the body from serotonin and found in bananas, tomatoes, beets and cucumbers. Begin with a small dose (1 mg) at bedtime. For melatonin to be effective, your bedroom should be dark, as light suppresses its release.
Reduce stress with 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP): This precursor to serotonin has a calming influence on mood and aggressiveness. Try 50-100 mg to help you sleep.
Consider aromatherapy: A whiff of an essential oil can alter your brain’s neurochemistry and produce physiological and psychological changes in seconds. Lavender, for example, increases the alpha brain waves associated with relaxation and induces sleep. Add lavender oil to your bath, rub it into your feet, or spray it on your bed linens.
 Levy, P et al. Sleep deprivation, sleep apnea and cardiovascular diseases. Front Biosci (Elite Ed). 2012 Jan 1;4:2007-21.
 Tamisier, R et al. A new model of chronic intermittent hypoxia in humans: effect on ventilation, sleep, and blood pressure. J Appl Physiol. 2009;107:17-24.
 Levy, P et al. Obstructive sleep apnea and atherosclerosis. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2009;51:400-10.
 Yaggi, HK et al. Obstructive sleep apnea as a risk factor for stroke and death. N Engl J Med. 2005;353:2034-41.
 Arzt, M et al. Association of sleep-disordered breathing and the occurrence of stroke. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2005;172:1447-51.
 He, J et al. Mortality and apnea index in obstructive sleep apnea. Experience in 385 male patients. Chest. 1988;94:9-14.
 Young, T et al. Sleep disordered breathing and mortality: eighteen-year follow-up of the Wisconsin sleep cohort. Sleep. 2008;31:1071-8.