Sleep deprivation stroke risk: It's lurking in the arteries

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We all know those people who claim to wake up fully refreshed, ready to go after five hours of sleep. Those sleep-less people throughout history have included the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill and Nikolai Tesla—famous insomniacs who undeniably accomplished much in those waking hours but also happened to die of similar causes: Churchill and da Vinci died of stroke and Tesla of coronary thrombosis. And while no one is suggesting that sleep disorders contributed to their demise, modern-day researchers are in fact finding a direct correlation between chronic sleep deprivation and stroke and cardiovascular disease.

For some with risk factors, less sleep means greater stroke risk

Numerous studies have made the connection between poor sleep and risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, inflammation and obesity. Yet recently published research in healthy participants with traditional risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure, suggests that simply sleeping less than six hours a night contributes to atherosclerosis (fatty buildup within the arteries or “hardening of the arteries”)—a major cause of stroke and heart attack.

The study involved nearly 4,000 people, two-thirds of whom were men and none of whom had any known heart disease. It was found that those who slept less than six hours per night were 27 percent more likely to have plaque buildup in arteries throughout the body—not just in the heart—compared to those who slept for seven to eight hours each night.

Those who slept less than six hours per night were 27 percent more likely to have plaque buildup in arteries throughout the body.

Sleep quality was also a significant factor. The study defined sleep quality as how often a person awoke during the night and the frequency of movements during sleep phases. Study participants who slept poorly were 34 percent more likely to have atherosclerosis compared to their well-rested counterparts.

As it turns out, getting too much sleep (more than eight hours a night) was also correlated with plaque buildup in the arteries. Such findings confirm that quality sleep in the seven- to eight-hour range is still the gold standard for slumber.

“Unfortunately, many adults fall into poor sleeping habits at a young age,” says Rochelle Goldberg, MD, director of sleep medicine services at Main Line Health. “Busy personal lives and careers make it easy for people to think that sleep is a luxury rather than something that’s essential for our health.”

Though exactly how sleep and stroke are related isn’t clear, it is generally understood that sleep benefits our bodies by healing the blood vessels and the heart, and by allowing the cardiovascular system to rest. Adds Dr. Goldberg, “We are still discovering the many complex processes our brains and bodies undergo during sleep, from infancy to old age, and how critical these activities are to long-term health and well-being.”

Long-term insomnia treatment and recovering from chronic sleep deprivation

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, insomnia is defined as:

  • Having difficulty falling asleep
  • Having trouble staying asleep
  • Waking up too early in the morning

Insomnia is considered short-term if it lasts for up to three months. If it occurs three times per week and lasts for at least three months, it is considered chronic.

“Many people just go on living with sleep issues day in and day out but at what cost?” Dr. Goldberg poses. “Especially given that effective treatment for insomnia can make a lasting difference and greatly improve mental and physical well-being.”

If you or someone close to you needs chronic insomnia help, it’s important to see a sleep medicine specialist to determine an appropriate treatment plan. Long-term insomnia treatment may include individual sleep therapies or a combination of treatments, such as:

  • CBT and insomnia – Losing sleep for many months or even years becomes a learned pattern of behavior. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia can help you repattern your brain, restructure your thinking, and unlearn behaviors that lead to insomnia. This is a cornerstone of treatment for insomnia.
  • Sleep disorders medication – It is common for medication to be used in combination with other types of chronic insomnia treatments. Medication can help people with insomnia fall asleep more easily and stay asleep. There are also specific medications to help people with individual sleep disorders, including narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome and sleepwalking.
  • Sleep hygiene for insomnia – From developing a consistent sleep routine to creating a healthy sleep environment, good sleep hygiene is something you can learn to do and is often prescribed along with other sleep therapies.
  • Relaxation and exercise for insomnia – It’s important to examine your lifestyle and daily activities to eliminate unnecessary stress and develop ways to calm the mind and body in preparation for rest at the end of the day. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can all be used to help you get to sleep at night and wake up rested.

If you or your partner catch yourself snoring in the middle of the night or your breathing is interrupted, be sure talk to your doctor about a sleep test. You could be affected by a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, and an appointment with a specialist can help you identify treatment options. Keep in mind that untreated sleep apnea can put further strain on your heart and again increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Tired of being tired? Main Line Health offers several Sleep Center locations to provide you with diagnosis and treatment for a variety of sleep disorders. Make an appointment with a sleep medicine specialist today.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654).

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