Lack of sleep and sleep disorders can do much more than make you tired. They are connected to an inability to lose weight and can even affect your heart.
Sleep is such an important part of cardiovascular health that when patients come in feeling fatigued, Dr. Gina Lundberg, MD, a preventive cardiologist with Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, asks, “How’s your sleep?”
As a specialist on women and heart disease, Dr. Lundberg pointed out that almost all menopausal women say they don’t get enough sleep.
A questionnaire she gives patients helps determine whether they have symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy or restless leg syndrome, all of which get in the way of adequate sleep, said Dr. Lundberg, a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
For example, many patients say they snore. That can be a sign of sleep apnea, which causes pauses in breathing during sleep and can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Not all snoring is related to sleep apnea, though.
“I don’t care if you snore. I’m really worried about your cardiovascular health, and snoring can be a symptom,” Dr. Lundberg said.
Seriousness of Sleep Problems, Types of Treatment
Major studies have shown correlations between sleep disorders and obesity as well as problems such as atrial fibrillation, hypertension and pulmonary hypertension, among others. Dr. Lundberg said the cause-and-effect relationships are not fully understood.
If symptoms for sleep disorders are present, the patient may need to see a sleep specialist, usually a neurologist or pulmonologist, for a specific diagnosis. Often, patients have a mix of different sleep problems.
Among the treatments for sleep disorders are continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, for obstructive sleep apnea. Other treatments include using an oral appliance to bring the jaw forward or having surgery on the back of the mouth to make a bigger opening, Dr. Lundberg said.
Exactly how much sleep does the average person need?
Studies have found that most people need six to eight hours each day and that too little or too much can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems.
Dr. Lundberg said those who get seven hours of sleep regularly tend to be healthiest, but added that everyone has his or her own sleep needs. And, as people grow older, they typically require less sleep.
Getting Good Rest
If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep follow some of these suggestions:
- Get regular physical activity, but don’t do it right before bed because that gets your adrenaline pumping and can keep you awake.
- Limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two drinks for men; too much alcohol interferes with sleep.
- Avoid caffeine before bed.
- Develop a pre-bedtime routine such as taking a warm bath, dimming the lights or having some herbal tea.
In the quest for restful sleep, Dr. Lundberg said, doctors have cut back on prescribing sleep aids. A recent study showed that those using prescription sleeping pills as few as 18 times per year - less than twice a month - were more than three times more likely to die.
“Clearly,” she said, citing the study, “they’re not safe.”