Well, here we are again—smack dab in the dead of yet another bone-chilling winter. It’s my least favorite season for a reason. And if you’ll excuse my pun, the cold, dark days are just the tip of the iceberg.
The great irony of February—which also happens to be American Heart Month—is that its winter weather might actually be harder on your cardiovascular health than any other month.
In fact, research shows that, in vulnerable populations, risk of stroke can increase by as much as 20 percent during the winter months.1 But that’s just one of the reasons why I’m raising the subject today.
The main reason is to point out new research on another major risk factor. And this one can strike any time of year…
Disrupted sleep doubles heart trouble
If you’ve been a reader of mine for a while now, then you already know that getting a good night’s sleep is critical to your health. And, on the flip side, lack of sleep comes with very real risks—especially if your heart health is already in the crosshairs.
In fact, a study recently published in the European Heart Journal shows that, for people with high genetic risk of heart disease or stroke, healthy sleep habits could actually help offset some of the risk.2
These researchers looked at a group of genetic variations called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs (“snips”), with established links to heart disease and stroke.
Using blood samples from upwards of 400,000 subjects pulled from the U.K. Biobank, the researchers assigned genetic cardiovascular risk scores ranging from high to intermediate, to low. They followed subjects for more than eight years, and in that time, they identified more than 7,250 cases of heart disease or stroke.
When they looked at the subjects’ sleep data, they found those with both high genetic risk and poor sleep patterns had a 2.5 times higher risk of heart disease—and 1.5 times higher risk of stroke—than those with low genetic risk who also suffered with poor sleep.
But subjects with high genetic risk and healthy sleep patterns actually shaved off some of that risk. (Quality sleep didn’t completely erase subjects’ genetic risk, but it did put a significant dent in it.)
Overall, subjects with good sleep habits reduced their risk of both heart disease and stroke by more than one-third compared to poor sleepers. (In this case, the healthiest sleepers were clocking seven to eight hours a night—with no insomnia, no snoring, and no daytime drowsiness.)
And while this finding may only be observational, plenty of other research confirms that healthy sleep is a key to good heart health—and vice versa…
The deadly hazards of skimping on sleep
Research presented at the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) 2016 Annual Meeting looked at women between the ages of 40 to 60 years old. Participants didn’t smoke, didn’t work the night shift (a known sleep disruptor), and had no history of clinical cardiovascular disease (a very important twist to this study).
In other words, these weren’t women you’d expect to have a build-up of fats, cholesterol, and other substances in the artery walls (atherosclerosis). Yet, results showed that sleeping less was associated with significantly higher odds of carotid plaque—up to twice as high as women who slept more.3
Plus, those who slept less were 1.5 times more likely to develop carotid artery disease, on average. Poor sleep quality was also significantly associated with more plaque in the carotid arteries.
But that’s not all. Research shows a dangerous upswing in notorious inflammatory markers linked to heart disease and other lethal conditions in sleepless menopausal women, too.
Another recent study published in the journal Sleep looked at the results of sleep monitoring and blood tests of nearly 300 women. Researchers found that women with difficulty getting to sleep, or who tossed and turned throughout the night, also had higher levels of two markers:
- Interleukin-6 (which has links to cardiovascular events, hypertension, and diabetes), and
- Von Willebrand factor antigen (a marker involved in clotting, with ties to blood vessel dysfunction).
The study authors point out that it’s not clear which showed up first: the poor sleep or the inflammation. But no matter how you slice it, it’s clear that not getting enough sleep skyrockets your heart risk.
The bottom line? You simply can’t afford to skimp on sleep. But remember… when it comes to shut eye, it is possible to get too much of a good thing.
In fact, the journal Neurology published another recent study showing that people who take long naps during the day—or who sleep more than nine hours at night—could be headed for disaster just as quickly.
More sleep, more problems
This study looked at more than 31,000 Chinese subjects with an average age of 62 years. Researchers quizzed them on sleep and napping habits, and found that eight percent took daytime naps longer than 90 minutes, while nearly 25 percent reported sleeping nine or more hours nightly.
None of the study’s participants had a history of stroke or any other major health issues when the study started. But over roughly six years of follow-up, 1,557 suffered a stroke.
Analysis showed that the subjects who slept nine or more hours nightly were 23 percent more likely to fall into this unfortunate category.4 (That’s compared with people who slept seven to eight hours per night.)
This was even after accounting for a host of other key stroke risk factors—including high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.
Meanwhile, subjects who took midday naps longer than 90 minutes were 25 percent more likely to suffer a stroke down the line than people who took shorter naps of 30 minutes or less.
Finally, the subjects who were long nappers and long sleepers were 85 percent more likely to wind up having a stroke than their counterparts with more moderate sleep habits. And sleep quality mattered, too. In fact, subjects reporting poor sleep were nearly 30 percent more likely to suffer a stroke than those who enjoyed sound sleep every night.
The “Goldilocks effect”
Once again, we’re talking about an observational study—so the researchers were quick to caution against drawing any conclusions about oversleeping as a cause of stroke. But between you and me, I think it’s a pretty safe assumption to make.
After all, studies have exposed the potential metabolic dangers of napping before.
In one instance, subjects who napped fewer than 40 minutes suffered no increased health risks. But when daytime naps lasted longer than 40 minutes, metabolic risk took a very sharp upswing.
In fact, subjects who routinely clocked 90-minute naps saw their risk of metabolic syndrome rise by as much as 50 percent.5
And unfortunately, other research has revealed terrifyingly similar results, showing that naps longer than an hour raise the risk of heart disease by more than 80 percent. And the risk of death by any cause by nearly 30 percent.
But before you swear off naps altogether, consider the fact that all of these studies also showed an interesting “Goldilocks effect.” In other words, naps shorter than 30 minutes actually appear to deliver modest protection to your heart.
And given what we know about the effects of mid-day sleep on blood pressure levels, it’s no wonder why…
Forget salt restriction—sleep instead
A recent study presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 68th Annual Scientific Session featured just over 200 Greek subjects, with an average age of 62 years and a mean systolic blood pressure of 129.9 mm Hg.
Researchers looked at a number of data points: They assessed 24-hour blood pressure and arterial stiffness, and recorded midday sleep times and lifestyle habits (like exercise routines and caffeine, alcohol, and salt consumption). They also gave subjects echocardiograms to assess heart function.
Factors that might impact blood pressure—like age, gender, medications, lifestyle—were all accounted for. Plus, heart function and arterial stiffness were similar among all subjects. Which makes the outcome of this study that much more compelling…
Average systolic blood pressure was a full 5.3 mm Hg lower among nappers—127.6 mm Hg versus 132.9 mm Hg, which is enough to dodge an official hypertension diagnosis nowadays. Plus, people who napped during the day had better overall blood pressure numbers, too—128.7/76.2 on average, versus 134.5/79.5.6
In other words, a daily nap is likely more effective than standard recommendations like salt restriction—and quite possibly as impactful as low-dose drug treatment—for lowering blood pressure.
And since it only takes a 2 mm Hg drop to slash cardiovascular risk by as much as ten percent, it goes without saying that it’s time well spent.
So if you find taking a short “power nap” helps you recharge your batteries, by all means, go ahead and catch some mid-day ZZZ’s. But do yourself a favor and set an alarm so that you never sleep for longer than 30 minutes.
And never use naps as a substitute for a good night’s sleep, either. Though I recognize that, for many people, getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done…
Safe, natural, drug-free sleep support
Chronic insomnia can make bedtime a complete nightmare for some people. And unfortunately, most doctors don’t take the time to teach people how to sleep better (if they have any idea how to do that in the first place).
Instead, they’ll hand you a prescription sleeping pill. But these drugs are only a temporary band-aid. Not to mention the long list of dangerous side effects they carry.
Natural supplements, on the other hand, are a completely different story. Because unlike Big Pharma’s billion-dollar sleeping pills, nutritional supplements help to promote your body’s natural sleep process instead of just knocking you out.
So, my top four supplements to help promote good sleep include:
1.) Melatonin. This hormone helps control your sleep and wake cycles. I recommend starting with as little as 3 mg every night before bedtime. You can go higher, slowly increasing the dosage in increments if need be. Just never exceed 20 mg. (If you’re waking up groggy, you’ve taken too much.)
2.) L-theanine. Stress is often the enemy of quality sleep—but this is the same compound that makes a hot cup of tea so calming. That’s why I recommend taking at least 100 mg before bedtime.
3.) Enzyme-treated asparagus stem extract (ETAS™). This recent breakthrough harnesses the power of heat shock proteins to promote deeper sleep—among other restorative benefits. I recommend 200 mg before bed.
4.) CBD. As you may already know, cannabidiol (CBD) has quickly become one of my treatments of choice for managing anxiety, depression, and yes, sleeplessness. I often find that CBD oil offers the best absorption and makes it easier to find specific dosages you may need for each individual concern. I recommend starting out with a small amount and working your way up until you reach the desired result. (This process is known as titration.)
Of course, the quest for a better night’s sleep doesn’t begin and end with supplementation. You should also address your surroundings, and make sure they’re conducive to sleep. (See the sidebar for two of my top tips for making sure your room is ready for sleep.)
If your sleep hasn’t been up to snuff, it may take a little work to get things back on track. But, in the long run, the benefits to your health are well worth the effort.
SIDEBAR: Create a soothing sleep space
My two go-to strategies for creating a healthier sleep environment include:
Investing in room darkening shades or curtains. This will help keep the the light from streetlamps and other environmental “light pollution” out of your bedroom while you sleep. (A sleep mask will do the trick, too.)
Being conscious of blue light. Don’t sabotage yourself by soaking up blue light before bedtime. Turn off your electronic devices (yes, that includes the TV) well before you plan to turn in, and keep your other lights dim.
- Chao TF. “The relationship between cold temperature and risk of ischemic stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation.” Eur Heart J (2015) 36 (suppl 1).
- Fan M, et al. “Sleep patterns, genetic susceptibility, and incident cardiovascular disease: a prospective study of 385 292 UK biobank participants.” Eur Heart J. 2020 Mar 14;41(11):1182-1189.
- North American Menopause Society (NAMS) 2016 Annual Meeting: Abstract S-16. Presented October 7, 2016.
- Zhou L, et al. “Sleep duration, midday napping, and sleep quality and incident stroke: The Dongfeng-Tongji cohort.” Neurology. 2020 Jan 28;94(4):e345-e356
- American College of Cardiology. “Long naps, daytime sleepiness tied to greater risk of metabolic syndrome: Findings suggest more research is needed to understand the role of sleep and heart risk factors.” Science Daily, 03/23/2016. (sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160323185548.htm)
- American College of Cardiology. “A nap a day keeps high blood pressure at bay: Catching some midday shut-eye linked to similar drops in blood pressure seen with other lifestyle changes, some medications.” Science Daily, 03/07/2019. (sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/03/190307081029.htm)