This Nightly Habit Could Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease, Says New Study

Doctors from a few of the most prominent hospitals in the country teamed up to identify one bedtime pattern that's showing a surprising association with your heart.

It might seem like there are two kinds of people in the world: The ones who fall asleep with zero effort, and the ones who take more time to wind down. There’s more at stake than sweet dreams and daytime grogginess when the process of hitting the hay feels a little unpredictable night-to-night.

If you’re a self-professed night owl or frequently toss and turn in sporadic sleep, new research might inspire you to make a point of creating a healthier sleep routine. A February 2023 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association brings to light an unseen threat to our hearts: The risks of inconsistent sleep patterns.

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The hidden danger of sleep irregularity

The snooze button may seem like your worst enemy, especially when you’re yearning for five more minutes in bed. However, it’s the unpredictable sleep patterns that might be the real culprits behind potential health risks. The research, led by Kelsie Full, Ph.D., MPH, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, analyzed the sleep patterns of 2,032 participants from six diverse U.S. communities.

The findings? Those with irregular sleep patterns—defined by sleep duration fluctuations greater than two hours in a week—showed increased signs of subclinical cardiovascular disease. This silent stage of heart disease often goes undetected as symptoms are either absent or unrecognized, while the cardiovascular system gradually suffers damage.

Full was quoted in a press release from the medical center, stating, “These results suggest that maintaining regular or habitual sleep durations, or sleeping close to the same total amount of time each night, may play an important role in preventing cardiovascular disease.”

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Sleep and cardiovascular health

Our bodies are like well-oiled machines that operate on internal biological clocks known as circadian rhythms. These rhythms regulate countless processes, including sleep. When we disrupt these rhythms by switching sleep schedules or changing between nights of rest and insomnia, the body may struggle to adapt.

The study discovered a correlation between these inconsistent sleep patterns and an increased presence of subclinical markers of cardiovascular disease.

Throughout a week-long observation period, participants who showed a higher degree of inconsistency in their sleep durations presented more alarming results. These individuals were more likely to carry a higher calcium load in their coronary arteries, a known precursor to heart disease. There was also an increased plaque buildup in their carotid arteries, signaling a heightened stroke risk. Additionally, their blood vessels were more rigid, a condition often known as “hardening of the arteries,” typically associated with systemic atherosclerosis.

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Prioritizing sleep for a healthy heart

Dr. Full and her team hypothesize that disruptions to the circadian rhythm form the link between irregular sleep and heart disease. They explain: “Almost all major cardiovascular functions, including heart rate, blood pressure, vascular tone, and endothelial functions, are regulated by circadian clock genes.” They note that any disruptions to these rhythms can affect these essential cardiovascular functions, promoting “chronic inflammation, altered glucose metabolism, increased sympathetic nervous system activation, and elevated arterial pressures”—all potential triggers for atherosclerosis.

In the face of these risks, a consistent sleep schedule and quality rest are more than just comfort—they are vital for your health. (Note: A 2023 sleep and Alzheimer’s study backs this up!)

If quality sleep seems elusive to you, here are some strategies to consider from The American Academy of Sleep Medicine:

  1. Strive for a steady sleep schedule, setting a fixed time for bed and wake-up.
  2. Target seven to eight hours of sleep each night, the recommended duration for adults.
  3. Reserve your bed for sleep and intimacy only, reinforcing its role as a place of rest.
  4. Make your bedroom a sanctuary of calm and relaxation, free from stressors and distractions.
  5. Dim the lights as evening approaches to signal your body that it’s time to wind down.
  6. Implement a digital curfew, turning off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.

These initial steps should set you on the path toward healthier sleep habits. Let’s prioritize rest—it has the power to heal.

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Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO
Tricia is a doctor of osteopathy with experience in primary healthcare. She received her medical degree from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and conducts clinical research in Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, as she is motivated by the desire to contribute to the development of innovative treatments and therapies. She is also a certified lifestyle coach for the CDC-recognized National Diabetes Prevention Program, empowering individuals to make lasting, healthy lifestyle changes. Dr. Varacallo loves to write— especially about health, wellness, and grief. Drawing from her own experiences of loss and caregiving, she loves to offer support and encouragement to those navigating their own grief journeys. Outside of her professional life, she enjoys traveling and exploring the sunny beaches of Florida with her significant other, always ready for their next adventure.