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How sleep — or the lack of it — increases heart disease risk in women

If you find yourself regularly counting sheep, then you may be unknowingly putting yourself at increased risk for heart disease, according to several studies, including one published in the journal Sleep in September 2009. That study, conducted by Canadian researchers, found that insomnia contributed to a marked increase in nighttime blood pressure among participants, which, in turn, led to increased heart disease risk. Another study, published in the July 2009 issue of Sleep, found that women who slept five hours or less per night were more likely to develop heart disease than the men who participated in the same study.

Unfortunately, sleep disruption is not unusual, and is even a common trait among many adult women. Pregnancy, child-rearing, stress, and menopause are all factors that contribute to sleeplessness, causing many women to consider it as just another fact of life. At the other end of the spectrum, some studies have shown that too much sleep can also be dangerous for post-menopausal women, raising the risk of ischemic stroke as much as 70%. However, lead author Dr. Jiu-Chiuan Chen of the School of Public
Health at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill noted that only about 4.5% of participants slept nine or more hours per night, while nearly twice that number slept five hours or less on average; “The prevalence in women of having long sleep duration is much lower than having sleep duration less than six hours,” said Dr. Chen. “So the overall public health impact of short sleep is probably larger than long sleep.”

Gender differences have been a subject of study at the University of Warwick in Great Britain, where the sleep habits and overall health of over 6500 men and women between the ages of 35 and 55 were tracked for three years. Researchers found that women who slept less than five hours per night had almost twice as much risk of hypertension than those who slept seven hours or more, while men had no increased risk. As a result, Professor Francesco Cappuccio warned that “Sustained sleep curtailment, ensuing excessive daytime sleepiness, and the higher cardiovascular risk are causes for concern. Emerging evidence also suggests a potential role for sleep deprivation as a predictor or risk factor for conditions like obesity and diabetes.”

Certain lifestyle factors have shown up consistently as well among women who report lower sleep duration, including obesity, smoking, and even being unmarried. When doctors study inadequate sleep patterns, they primarily look at three elements: how long it takes someone to fall asleep, how often they wake during the night, and the total number of hours that they actually slept. A Duke University Medical Center study published n 2008 began to pinpoint real dangers that affect the health of sleep-deprived women; blood samples showed higher levels of insulin and C-reactive protein and interleukin-6, which are associated with high risk of heart disease. The highest risk was directly associated with women who reported taking 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep.

So, how long should you sleep? Most doctors recommend about seven hours per night, but that number can vary with each person — so aim for anywhere from six to eight hours. If you do tend to have trouble falling asleep, Dr. Bhuvana Muthuswamy of the Baylor College of Medicine offers this advice:

• Maintain a regular sleep/wake time
• Exercise regularly, but avoid exercising three hours prior to bedtime
• Finish eating two to three hours prior to bedtime
• Avoid caffeine and chocolate about six to eight hours prior to bedtime
• Restrict fluids, especially alcohol, close to bedtime
• Eliminate stress

Since most women report that they deal with a lot of daily stress, that last item may seem almost impossible to avoid, especially when many women are often folding laundry, catching up on e-mail, and loading the dishwasher right up until the last minute. No wonder we can’t fall asleep! Try to plan ahead by setting aside 30 minutes before bedtime for a relaxing bubble bath, some quiet music, and a good read. Your heart will thank you for it.


Lack Of Sleep Could Be More Dangerous For Women Than Men

When Stress Keeps You Up at Night

Menopause and Sleep Problems

Insomnia Is Bad For The Heart; Increases Blood Pressure

Women's Health Much More At Risk From Sleep Deprivation, Study Suggests

Poor Sleep More Dangerous For Women (video)

Mortality Risk Greater For Elderly Women Who Nap Daily

image courtesy of Balanced and Healthy Lifestyle

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WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) patient advocacy organization with thousands of members nationwide, including women heart patients and their families, health care providers, advocates and consumers committed to helping women live longer, healthier lives. WomenHeart supports, educates and advocates on behalf of the nearly 48 million American women living with or at risk of heart disease. Our programs are made possible by donations, grants and corporate partnerships.

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WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease is a founding partner of The Heart Truth Red Dress campaign. The Heart Truth and Red Dress are trademarks of HHS.