It’s no secret that sleep is important. If you’ve ever gone too long without it, you can certainly feel the effects both physically and mentally. But what exactly happens when we don’t get enough sleep? Keep reading to learn more about impact on your heart, brain and overall health, and how you can improve your sleep.

What happens without proper sleep

In a general sense, sleep allows your body and your mind to rest and recover from the day. According to the CDC, adults who sleep less than 7 hours each night are more likely to say they have had health problems, including heart attack, asthma, and depression.

Sleep also affects:

  • Hormone levels
  • Immunity, raising your likelihood of illness
  • Metabolism
  • Underlying conditions such as migraines and seizures

Poor sleep can also hurt your health indirectly over time, including higher stress levels, less motivation to be physically active, and unhealthy food choices.

The Impact of Sleep on Brain & Heart Health

A healthy amount of sleep is important for the brain to adapt to new information. During the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, your brain files long-term memory and sorts out the vital information from the not so important. Without enough sleep, we become unable to process what we’ve learned and have issues remembering the information in the future. Furthermore, if the REM cycle is shortchanged, you may feel cranky, and your mental focus may be reduced. Studies suggest that sleep may promote the removal of waste products from brain cells, which is a process that seems to be less efficient when the brain is awake.

Sleep disruptions can also be harmful to heart health. Processes like glucose metabolism and underlying conditions such as blood pressure and inflammation, all of which impact the heart, are affected when you don’t get enough sleep. Those who have insomnia and sleep apnea, two of the most common sleep disorders, may be at a higher risk for some heart issues.

Insomnia is when you have trouble falling sleep or staying asleep, and it’s linked to heart disease and high blood pressure. Sleep apnea, which causes you to stop breathing for short amounts of time, affects how much oxygen your body gets while you sleep. This condition may increase the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.

Other Factors

In addition, the specific impact of sleep on the heart and brain, people who don’t sleep well or enough tend to report health problems that are risk factors for heart disease and stroke. These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity

Tips for better sleep

Healthy sleep habits can make a big difference in your quality of life. There are many factors that can get in the way of a good night’s sleep and even though most are within your control, it can still be challenging. Here are some ways you can create the ideal conditions for healthy sleep:

Create a sleep-inducing environment:

  • Control the temperature of your bedroom – ideally between 60-67 degrees
  • Avoid bright lights in the evening
  • Have a comfortable mattress and pillows
  • As much as possible, keep the bedroom quiet (you can get a sound machine if it helps)

Develop good habits:

  • Reserve your bed for sleeping, try not to use it for work or other activities
  • Stay active during the day (but not too close to bedtime)
  • Limit daytime naps, and if you do nap, limit the length
  • Stick to a schedule of waking each day, even on the weekends if possible
  • Try to resolve any worries or anxiety prior to going to bed

Get prepared:

  • Allow some time to wind down by switching to calming activities closer to bedtime
  • Establish a bedtime routine, avoiding screens and stressful or exciting activities
  • Avoid going to be bed hungry or “stuffed” and take caution with nicotine, caffeine and alcohol use close to bedtime

Trouble Shooting:

If you’re having trouble sleeping, move to another room and do a calming activity until you feel tired. It is normal to have an occasional sleepless night, but if it becomes commonplace, be sure to talk to your doctor about it. You may also want to consider recording your patterns in a sleep diary to give your health care provider a better picture of what is happening. Fitness trackers may also be able to provide some insights into your sleep. Check out this article on ways this and other technology can help with your overall health.

Sleep is key to keeping your heart and brain healthy and is something you can actively work on improving. Unlike genetic factors, sleep is something that is largely in our control. If you’re concerned about lack of sleep, especially if you are heading into a procedure like TAVR or if you are concerned about your risk of stroke, discuss your concerns with your Heart team.


This educational blog was provided by Boston Scientific.