We’ve all experienced the tiredness and lack of clarity that comes from a sleepless night, but a study published last year by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology Foundation found that sleep schedule inconsistency is a risk to your heart health.

Andrew Cichelli, M.D., pulmonology, sleep medicine and critical care physician with East Georgia Pulmonary & Sleep Disorder Medicine and East Georgia Regional Medical Center, is making sure patients know how important it is to establish a regular pattern for going to bed and waking up.

The cardiovascular system exhibits strong circadian rhythms, biochemical, physiological and behavioral processes that rise and fall during the 24-hour day, to maintain normal functioning. The sleep/wake cycle is another circadian rhythm and the study found that individuals with the most irregular sleep duration or timing had more than twice the risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared with individuals who had the most regular sleep patterns.

Physicians are now more likely to recommend sufficient sleep as a heart health prevention action on top of physical activity and healthy diet. 

“Consistently getting a good night’s sleep is a foundation of good health,” said Dr. Cichelli. “An occasional night of tossing and turning is okay, but your overall health suffers if you have a lack of sleep that goes on for too long.”

The National Sleep Foundation has identified that from age 18 to 64 we need 7 to 9 hours of sleep, and at 65 or older we need 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Children may need a few more.

This time is needed so the body can perform a number of vital functions that support the health of your body and brain. Three primary functions are repairing tissue, fighting off infection and processing memories of experiences from your day.

Higher variability in sleep duration or timing is associated with higher blood pressure, disregulated blood lipids and insulin resistance that can lead to diabetes. Insufficient sleep can affect your body in other ways too.

  • Immune functioning is compromised as your body produces fewer antibodies so you’re more likely to get sick and the body has fewer resources to stave off illness, including cancers.
  • Impulse control and appetite hormones can become unbalanced, promoting overeating and obesity.
  • Mental functioning can be less for problem solving, reasoning, organizing, planning and executing plans.
  • Learning is affected in all stages – your ability to encode new information, to consolidate and absorb the information and make new connections, and ability to remember and retrieve the information.

“The quality of your sleep is critical too,” Dr. Cichelli further stated. “If you’re waking up tired or getting sleepy during the day, it could be a sign of other health issues such as sleep apnea.”

Many things can cause difficulties sleeping and sleep deprivation, including stress, sleep apnea and chronic insomnia. Insomnia is often a symptom of stress or anxiety disorders that can make it difficult for you to relax enough to fall asleep and sleep soundly. Your physician can help diagnose whether you could benefit from medication or behavioral therapy or if a thorough sleep study is needed.