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Does Insomnia Raise Your Risk for Heart Trouble?

Researchers seeking to discover could insomnia raise your risk for problems found an association with atherosclerosis and heart attacks.

People with insomnia experience a terrible double bind. On the one hand, they have trouble falling or staying asleep. That is, after all, the definition of insomnia. As a result, they may have trouble functioning normally during the day. On the other hand, they keep hearing about all the dire consequences of inadequate sleep. This frequently leads to anxiety about insomnia, which only makes the situation worse. Sadly, the news this week will probably add to their distress. Does insomnia raise your risk for heart trouble? Two studies suggest that it may.

Might Insomnia Raise Your Risk for Heart Attacks?

A meta-analysis of nine studies reviewed the data on more than one million patients (Clinical Cardiology, Feb. 25, 2023). The authors report that people with insomnia are at higher risk for heart attacks. The highest risk was recorded for those who usually slept less than five hours a night. However, people sleeping nine hours or longer were not protected. The sweet spot seems to be between six and eight hours of sleep a night, although individuals do vary in the amount of sleep they need.

How Could Insomnia Lead to Cardiovascular Problems?

Researchers wanted to better understand why people with sleep difficulties are more prone to cardiovascular problems (Journal of the American Heart Association, Feb. 21, 2023). To accomplish that, they turned to subjects participating in a large ongoing cohort study called the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, or MESA. More than 2,000 of these older individuals wore a device for a week that measured when they went to bed and how long they slept. They also kept sleep diaries and had one night during the week of intensive in-home sleep monitoring.

Researchers compared these data on sleep to the individuals’ coronary artery calcium scores. MESA researchers had gathered this information as part of the study. Individuals who had highly variable bed times or sleep duration were more likely to have a high CAC score, indicating atherosclerosis. In addition, they often had blood pressure readings that differed between the arm and ankle. The authors conclude, “Our findings suggest that irregular sleep patterns may play a role in the pathophysiologic development of cardiovascular disease.”

Can You Overcome Insomnia?

Many people attempt to deal with insomnia by taking medication. However, both over-the-counter and prescription sleeping pills can have negative consequences. If you would like to learn how to overcome insomnia without medicines, you may wish to listen to our interview with Dr. Jade Wu. She will be answering questions live on The People’s Pharmacy radio show on Saturday, March 4, 2023, between 7 and 8 am EST.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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