Sleep Deprivation and Heart Disease

Recently, a group of scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, MA, in collaboration with colleagues from other research institutions, investigated the relationship between sleep and arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis is a condition caused by the buildup of fatty deposits and plaque inside a person’s arteries, causing them to become narrow and stiff. Individuals suffering from this condition are at greater risk for heart attack and stroke.

Dr. Filip Swirsky, a professor at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, led the research, which identified a hormonal mechanism that protects blood vessels from damage. The research was published in the prestigious journal Nature.

The mechanism is connected to sleep in a fundamental way. Generally speaking, the researchers discovered that mice that were sleep-deprived developed larger and more significant plaque deposits in their arteries than mice that had sufficient sleep.

In order to understand the precise process by which sleep deprivation increases the risk of arteriosclerosis, the research team studied mice that were genetically engineered to develop arteriosclerosis. They divided the mice into two groups: one group was allowed to sleep normally, while the other group had their sleep disrupted.

A comparison of the two groups of mice at the end of the study demonstrated that the sleep-disturbed mice developed almost twice the amount of certain types of inflammatory white blood cells in their bone marrow. Their brains also produced less of the hormone hypocretin.

To test the hypothesis that diminishment of the hormone hypocretin was directly responsible for the exacerbated development of arteriosclerosis, the scientists analyzed the effect of providing the sleep-deprived mice with hypocretin supplementation. As expected, analysis showed that supplementation slowed the development of arteriosclerosis in the sleep-deprived mice.

The researchers noted that hypocretin controls the production of blood cells in an individual’s bone marrow by regulating the signaling protein CSF1. Their research demonstrated that the connection between sleep deprivation and the development of arteriosclerosis was due to the fact that sleep deprivation caused a reduction of hypocretin which in turn caused an increase in the signaling protein CSF1. According to Dr. Swirsky, “This anti-inflammatory mechanism is regulated by sleep, and it breaks down when you frequently disrupt sleep or exercise poor sleep quality.”

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one-third of adults in the United States suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. Since numerous studies have linked sleep deprivation to a variety of serious health conditions — including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and even cancer — sleep deprivation represents a major threat to the health of the adult US population.

The takeaway message for us is clear: an important part of our cardiovascular health, as well as our general health, depends on getting a good night sleep.

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