Here’s Why a Lack of Sleep Hurts Your Cardiovascular Health

A good night’s sleep is hard to come by – especially when you’re in college and you have homework, tests, and friends to keep you up late at night. However, it’s hard to deny the fact that sleeping for a long enough period of time each night is important.

According to Medical News Today, a good night’s sleep is about seven hours of uninterrupted sleep – and this is absolutely critical for good health. In addition to (possibly) feeling well rested, there are so many benefits to a good night’s sleep. For example, sleeping well helps keep your arteries flexible, which impacts your circulation.

Effects of lack of sleep

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However, on the flip side, there are a lot of short and long term effects of bad sleep, including stress and obesity, respectively. Furthermore, according to the Medical News Today article, “research findings from the start of this year showed that sleeping for less than 6 hours per night rather than for 7–8 hours could increase a person’s risk of atherosclerosis — a condition in which plaque builds up inside the arteries — by as much as 27%.”

Another study, which was done back in 2013, discovered that adult males who sleep for less than six hours a night have problems with their endothelial cells (they line and help maintain the healthiness of the blood vessels) functioning correctly. That means that their blood vessels don’t expand and contract right, meaning that the blood can’t flow well to other parts of the body – and that’s not good.

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In fact, as you may have noticed, a lot of the effects of a lack of sleep are specifically tied to cardiovascular health and circulation. According to the Medical News Today article, it’s been known that a lack of sleep affects cardiovascular health, although scientists have been unsure as to exactly how it plays a part – until a new study.

The recent study

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Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder published a study in the Experimental Physiology journal that “pinpointed a potential biological mechanism explaining…how lack of sleep affects circulation by promoting the buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries (atherogenesis), which can increase a person’s risk of experiencing a stroke or heart attack,” the Medical News Today article said.

They took blood samples from 24 healthy people, ranging between 44 to 62 years old – 12 who sleep an average of seven to eight-and-a-half hours a night, and 12 who sleep an average of five to 6.8 hours a night. Then, from that data, the researchers found that those who slept less than seven hours a night had 40-60% lower blood levels (than those who slept seven to eight hours) of three circulation-related microRNAs (or miRNAs).

“‘Why 7 or 8 hours [of sleep per night] seems to be the magic number [in maintaining health] is unclear’,” Professor Christopher DeSouza, a senior author of this study (who was also on the team of the 2013 study), told Medical News Today. “‘[I]t is plausible that people need at least 7 hours of sleep per night to maintain levels of important physiological regulators’.”

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What are miRNAs and why are they important?

While miRNAs are, in general, “noncoding molecules that help regulate protein expression,” these specific three help “suppress the expression of proinflammatory proteins,” the Medical News Today article said. Low levels – and, in this case, levels that are lower by 40-60% – are not good. DeSouza explained that miRNAs “‘are like cellular brakes, so if beneficial microRNAs are lacking, that can have a big impact on the health of the cell’.”

Furthermore, according to the Medical News Today article, not having enough of these particular three circulation-oriented miRNAs mentioned above “could lead to vascular problems, including inflammation, as well as a higher risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease-related events, such as stroke or a heart attack.” Thus, it’s pretty safe to say that these miRNAs are pretty beneficial.

What does this all mean – for you and for the future?

So what’s the takeaway? In the simplest terms, this means that if you consistently get less than seven hours of sleep per night, you could have significantly lower blood levels of circulation-related miRNA molecules. Then, if you have fewer molecules that promote circulation and (at the same time) manage inflammatory substances, that could lead to fatty materials gradually building up against the walls of your arteries, which could lead to cardiovascular disease and its related effects.

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This study also shows that you could possibly diagnose cardiovascular disease with a blood test. The lab technicians would look at your blood levels of the three specific miRNAs, see if you are starting or have that fatty buildup in your arteries, and then decide if you have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

However, for those that have had (or are in the middle of) a stretch of time where they slept poorly – such as college – does that mean that your blood levels of those miRNAs are messed up forever? To be honest, that’s unclear right now, but DeSouza and his team are trying to figure out if you can reverse those miRNA-related effects of a lack of sleep. They’re trying to find out if you could return to having healthy blood levels of those miRNAs if you improve your sleep habits.

Regardless, what’s the bottom line? “‘Don’t underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep’,” DeSouza said.

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