Why a hard time sleeping hardens your arteries

As you get older, two things are more likely to happen…

1) You’re more likely to struggle to get a good night’s sleep.

2) And, you’re more likely to develop plaque in your arteries, leading to a condition known as atherosclerosis.

These two phenomena may seem unrelated…

Atherosclerosis, after all, is caused by a poor diet, lack of exercise and smoking cigarettes — not sleep. At least that’s what we’ve always believed.

And older brains don’t enter into deep sleep as much as younger ones do. Between that and the tendency to develop an overactive bladder with age, it’s no wonder we sleep worse with every passing year.

But even though both problems have plausible and seemingly separate explanations, new research shows exactly why the two problems are actually closely linked…

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Poor sleep leads to chronic inflammation that clogs arteries

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley just revealed exactly how poor sleep leads to arterial plaque buildup.

In the study, researchers analyzed data from 1,600 middle-aged and older adults. The data was pulled from a national dataset known as the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. They closely examined blood tests and calcium scores (to gauge plaque buildup).

They also looked at measures of sleep quality. One of those measures was sleep assessed by a sleep tracking wristwatch. The wristwatch was used to track sleep over the course of a week. Study participants also spent a night in a sleep laboratory that measured electrical brainwave signals. After looking at all this data, here’s what researchers found…

Disrupted sleep led to higher concentrations of inflammatory factors in the blood. It specifically increased the number of white blood cells known as monocytes and neutrophils in the blood, and these are known to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis, a condition where fatty plaques build up inside your arteries and put you at risk for heart attacks and strokes.

Put simply, poor sleep leads to chronic inflammation that eventually clogs your 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,” said study senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience.

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Get a good night’s sleep to protect your heart

So, if you want to protect your heart health as you age, pay close attention to your sleep. If you have sleep problems, do everything in your power to get them under control. Here are a few suggestions for improving sleep quality:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This helps your body clock know exactly when you’re supposed to go to sleep.
  • Don’t look at computers, smartphones or TV screens an hour before going to bed. The blue light they emit can have a negative impact on your circadian rhythm and your ability to fall asleep.
  • Get exercise during the day. If you’re physically exhausted, you’re more likely to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
  • Expose yourself to natural light in the morning hours. This helps set your circadian rhythm, which controls your sleep.
  • Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol in the evening. Both interfere with sleep quality.
  • If you snore a lot or don’t feel rested when you wake up, get tested for sleep apnea. It can significantly hamper your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
  • If you have insomnia, talk to your doctor about cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI). It’s one of the more effective natural therapies for insomnia and can help you avoid the use of prescription sleep aids.

Also, it’s important to note that even if you think your sleep is fine, you may want to use a sleep tracker to make sure you’re sleeping as well as you think you are. There are lots of tech devices available nowadays that track your sleep. And oftentimes, people who think they’re getting good enough sleep are actually having fragmented, fitful nights of sleep more often than they realize.

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  1. Fitful nightly sleep linked to chronic inflammation, hardened arteries — MedicalXpress.
  2. Broken sleep predicts hardened blood vessels — PLOS Biology.
  3. Aging changes in sleep — MedlinePlus.
  4. When Does Atherosclerosis Begin? — Healthline.


Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.