Lack of sleep can harm your blood vessels

Reduced sleep boosts oxidative stress in female endothelial cells.

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Does this describe you? You wake up early, care for your family, and rush to work. You might stay up late at night to do chores or pay bills. Many Americans, around one-third, are in the same boat and regularly get only five to six hours of sleep instead of the recommended seven to eight hours.

But even a tiny, ongoing lack of sleep could increase your chances of getting heart disease later in life. Studies show that people who consistently don’t get enough sleep, even a little, are likelier to have heart problems later than those who get enough sleep.

A recent study from Columbia University looked at what happens in the body when people consistently don’t get enough sleep.

In the study, after only six weeks of not getting enough sleep, the cells that line our blood vessels are exposed to harmful substances called oxidants, which can damage them. Unlike well-rested cells, sleep-deprived cells can’t activate their defense systems to eliminate these harmful molecules.

The outcome is that these cells become inflamed and don’t work correctly, which is an early stage in developing heart problems.

Study leader Sanja Jelic, MD, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Columbia and professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons said, “This is some of the first direct evidence to show that mild chronic sleep deficits cause heart disease.”

“Until now, we’ve only seen associations between sleep and heart health in epidemiological studies. However, these studies could be tainted by many confounders that cannot be identified and adjusted for. Only randomized controlled studies can determine if this connection is real and what changes in the body caused by short sleep could increase heart disease.” she added.

Past research focused on the effects of severe sleep deprivation. However, it didn’t examine the impact of consistent, milder sleep deficits.

Most studies looked at what happens when people don’t sleep for a few nights in a row. However, in real life, most people stick to a regular wake-up time but tend to stay up later than they should.

This study aimed to imitate this typical sleep pattern. They studied nearly 1,000 women, and 35 who usually slept 7 to 8 hours a night participated in a 12-week study. They followed their regular sleep routine for six weeks, and for the other six weeks, they went to bed 1.5 hours later than usual. They used wrist-worn sleep trackers to monitor their sleep patterns.

Image showing Adequate vs. Poor Sleep. The researchers traced the absence of the antioxidant response in sleep-deprived cells to a cellular factor, NRF2, that becomes trapped in the cytoplasm. When damaging oxidants accumulate in cells, NRF2 usually moves into the nucleus (blue) to turn on the antioxidant response. After chronic sleep restriction (right image) the Cullin3 protein holds NRF2 (yellow) in the cytoplasm..
Adequate vs. Poor Sleep. The researchers traced the absence of the antioxidant response in sleep-deprived cells to a cellular factor, NRF2, that becomes trapped in the cytoplasm. When damaging oxidants accumulate in cells, NRF2 usually moves into the nucleus (blue) to turn on the antioxidant response. After chronic sleep restriction (right image) the Cullin3 protein holds NRF2 (yellow) in the cytoplasm.. Credit: Columbia University.

New studies have shown that not sticking to a consistent bedtime might increase the chances of heart disease. Researchers, led by Jelic, are planning a study to see if irregular bedtimes affect blood vessel cells similarly to chronic short sleep.

The study is part of a growing body of research highlighting the importance of maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and getting enough sleep. The preliminary findings suggest that even milder, chronic sleep deficits may adversely affect vascular health, as evidenced by increased oxidative stress in vascular cells. Further research in this area may help individuals better understand the importance of sleep patterns in maintaining overall cardiovascular health.

Journal Reference:

  1. Shah, R., Shah, V.K., Emin, M. et al. Mild sleep restriction increases endothelial oxidative stress in female persons. Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-42758-y.

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