We all know that getting enough sleep is crucial to good health, but it seems not sleeping too much may be just as important.
Scientists in the US report that people who sleep more than 9 hours a night have a 34 per cent higher risk of suffering a first heart attack than those who sleep 6-9 hours.
Their analysis also confirmed the dangers of insufficient sleep, showing that those who slept fewer than 6 hours per night had a 20 per cent higher risk of a first heart attack in comparison to those who slept 6–9 hours.
In a paper published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology in September, the study’s authors analysed the genetic information, sleep habits and medical records of more than 450,000 British people aged 40-69 years who had never experienced a heart attack. The researchers then followed these people for 7 years.
They also found that the further people’s sleep fell outside the optimal 6-9 hour range, the higher the risks. For example, people who slept only 5 hours a night had a 52 per cent higher risk of heart attack than those who slept 7-8.
Overall, they concluded that for people with a genetic predisposition to heart disease, sleeping 6-9 hours nightly cut their risk of having a heart attack by 18 per cent.
“This provides some of the strongest proof yet that sleep duration is a key factor when it comes to heart health, and this holds true for everyone,” said senior study author, Professor Celine Vetter of the University of Colorado Boulder.
“Just as working-out and eating a healthy diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, sleep can too.’’
Lead author Iyas Daghlas, a medical student at Harvard, said the message from the study was a hopeful one.
“Regardless of what your inherited risk for heart attack is, sleeping a healthy amount may cut that risk,” he said.
The study makes interesting reading, but it is important to note a few of its limitations: it relied on self-reporting of sleep, which may not always be accurate, and it only looked at a certain age range, whereas our sleep needs can change over our lifetimes. Nonetheless, it does serve to underline how essential a good night’s sleep is to our health.
Although they all agree on the importance of sleep, scientists still don’t fully understand why we need so much of it. However, it is believed it helps us restore ourselves physically, as well as to organise things mentally.
It’s also thought to help keep your immune system strong, to assist with growth and healing, and to help control your appetite and your weight. Sleep is also needed for attention, memory and learning.
Not getting enough sleep can seriously affect your health. We all know how it can impact on your mood and ability to concentrate, and it has also been linked to a range of physical problems apart from heart disease, including diabetes and even premature death.
Tips to help you get a good night’s sleep
- Get into a good sleep routine—make a habit of going to bed at the same time each night, and setting your alarm for the same time each morning. And keep daytime naps to a minimum.
- Increase your exposure to bright light during the day—this helps set your body’s natural time-keeping clock known as your circadian rhythm.
- Keep light and noise to a minimum at night—you can use eye masks and earplugs if you need to.
- Set your bedroom temperature—it’s hard to sleep when you’re too hot or too cold.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and tobacco before bed, as they can make it harder to get to sleep, or disrupt your sleep.
- Turn off all screens at least 30 minutes before bed. The light emitted by TVs, smartphones, computers and tablets can trick your brain into thinking it’s still daytime.
- Exercise regularly.
If you struggle to get to sleep:
- Try relaxation and meditation techniques to help you calm your mind. You could try one of the many apps available if you need help with this.
- Create a playlist of soft, gentle music to help you unwind.
- If you don’t fall asleep right away, don’t beat yourself up about it; try reading a book for a while and see if that helps you nod off.
If you’ve tried these suggestions and still cannot sleep well, talk to your doctor, a counsellor, psychologist or sleep specialist about the difficulty you have in achieving a good night’s sleep.