Analysis: by not getting our daily requirement of sleep, we are causing damage to many parts of our body, including the heart

By Annie Curtis, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

The simple answer to the question is yes, it can. Lack of sleep is detrimental to many parts of our body including our heart and our vessels that carry blood around the body.

First of all, what do we mean by a lack of sleep? The amount of sleep that we need varies by age, according to the National Sleep Foundation in the US, adults require between seven and nine hours of sleep a day, with babies, children and teenagers requiring longer amounts of sleep. With our alarm clocks and devices, we are one of the only species on the planet that has the capacity to consciously deprive ourselves of enough sleep. On average, people sleep about 6.8 hours per night, which is about 90 minutes less than our ancestors did a century ago.  

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So what happens to our bodies when we don’t get our daily requirement of sleep - and why is this bad for our hearts and blood vessels? It appears that lack of sleep causes an increase in our blood pressure. Persistently high blood pressure is called hypertensiom and continuous hypertension can put strain on the heart and blood vessels. Why sleep deprivation increases blood pressure is not entirely clear, but it could be related to the fact that sleep deprivation causes an increase in our sympathetic system (which is the fight or flight response), and having this system continuously turned on will increase blood pressure.

Heart attacks are one of the most common types of heart disease, where there is a narrowing of the coronary arteries that bring blood directly into the heart and this decrease in blood supply causes the heart to fail. One of the reasons for this narrowing is that plaque can build up in the vessels and can rupture, which can block the vessel. White blood cells bury into these plaques and can make them more likely to rupture and form clots that prevent the blood getting through. Therefore, it seems that lack of sleep causes an increase in these white blood cells, which could be another reason for increased risk of heart disease.

Insufficient sleep causes our body clock to loose its timing capacity

Sufficient sleep is also a requirement to keep our body clocks in good shape. The body clock is an essential timing mechanism that we have in each cell of our body, so that cell knows the correct time of day. Healthy functioning of our cells within our heart and vessels depend on the body clock working effectively. Insufficient sleep causes our body clock to loose its timing capacity and this will also negatively affect these cells, causing them to be more susceptible to hypertension, the build up of plaque and subsequent heart disease.

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In summary, there are a number of ways in which insufficient sleep can lead to heart disease and the advice is to try as much as possible to get your daily requirement of sleep. Here are some tips on how to achieve a full night's rest. By doing this, you are doing the best thing for your heart. 

Dr Annie Curtis is a a StAR Research Lecturer in Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. She is a current Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ