Bad sleep can be linked to this devastating health issue

Maintaining a “perfect” sleep schedule is one of those feats of daily life that’s supposed to be relatively easy, but often proves seemingly unattainable. Sleep can be an incredibly cruel mistress; you’re tired all day but once your head finally hits the pillow, you’re wide awake. Similarly, tons of people can fall asleep easily but end up waking up every 40 minutes or so.

Many people end up simply accepting that interrupted sleep patterns and restless nights are a part of their life. After all, besides feeling a little extra tired the next day, what’s the big deal? Well, according to a new study just released by the University of California, Berkeley, disrupted nightly sleep patterns are indeed linked to a very serious health condition – fatty arterial plaque buildup.

Clogged arteries (atherosclerosis) are not a small health consideration. If left unaddressed this condition can lead to heart disease of the fatal variety.

“We’ve discovered that fragmented sleep is associated with a unique pathway — chronic circulating inflammation throughout the bloodstream — which, in turn, is linked to higher amounts of plaques in coronary arteries,” says study senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience, in a university release.

To put these findings in broader terms, poor sleep patterns appear to seriously increase a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular problems. For reference, cardiovascular disease kills 12,000 Americans per week.

“To the best of our knowledge, these data are the first to associate sleep fragmentation, inflammation, and atherosclerosis in humans,” adds lead study author Raphael Vallat, a postdoctoral researcher in Walker’s Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley.

There are already numerous established lifestyle choices that can raise an individual’s risk of developing heart disease, from lack of exercise to poor dietary choices. Now, interrupted sleep patterns may have to be added to that list.

For their analysis, researchers used a complex statistical modeling technique to look into the diagnostic data of over 1,600 middle-aged or older adults. To focus specifically on the relationship between sleep quality and heart health, they were also sure to account for other potentially influential factors like age, ethnicity, and BMI.

All participants took blood tests and had their calcium levels scored (which measures the buildup of plaque). Then, each person’s sleep patterns and quality was measured as well. This was accomplished via a wristwatch sleep sensor that was worn for a full week and one night spent in a sleep lab that measured the patients’ brain waves as they slept.

The final results of that analysis conclusively linked disrupted sleep patterns to higher inflammatory factors in the bloodstream. Moreover, more of the white blood cells monocytes and neutrophils were found in participants with poor sleep. Those two types of cells have long been considered “key players” when it comes to clogged arteries.

“In revealing this link with chronic inflammation, the findings suggest a missing middleman that is brokering the bad deal between fragmented sleep and the hardening of blood vessels,” Professor Walker theorizes.

What is the “middleman” connecting restless nights to plaque buildup in arteries? The study’s authors can’t say at this point, but still assert that their work should change how millions approach their sleep schedules and habits.

Atherosclerosis is a problem usually associated with older people, but the truth is that it starts to develop quite early in life. Most people, however, only become aware of the problem once an artery blockage occurs. With this in mind, even young adults should be mindful of their sleep habits or problems.

“The insidious nature of the disease requires that we pay attention to our sleep hygiene, even starting in early to midlife,” comments study co-lead author Vyoma Shah, a doctoral student in Walker’s lab.

It’s easy to say “sleep better,” but much harder to accomplish. The study’s authors suggest, to start, using a clinical-grade sleep tracker to get a better understanding of your sleep patterns. From there, you can then work on making any needed adjustments.

“If you track your sleep patterns using objective measures, the same way you track your weight, blood pressure, or cholesterol, you can make modifications to your sleep habits, which could make a tangible difference to later life health outcomes,” Shah says.

There’s also a strong possibility that poor sleep, and the inflammation it causes, is connected to more health problems besides cardiovascular disease. 

“This link between fragmented sleep and chronic inflammation may not be limited to heart disease, but could include mental health and neurological disorders, such as major depression and Alzheimer’s disease,” Professor Walker concludes. “These are new avenues we must now explore.”

In short, sleep is really important, and if you can’t seem to get through a single night without waking up two or three times, it’s in your best interest to try and make a change. Finding the right remedy for sleeplessness and insomnia can feel like a neverending scavenger hunt, and what works for one person probably won’t for others. That being said, researchers recommend avoiding computer or phone screens just before bed, maintaining a regular nightly routine, and getting in some exercise during the day.

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS Biology.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.