I was 14 years old when my paternal Grandmother died of her 5th heart attack. I remember going to the hospital to see her, not knowing it would be the last time. My family was there, as she grabbed my hand and told me she loved me. After I left the hospital, all the adults took turns staying with her throughout the night, so she was never alone. She passed away that night, with her husband and all of her children surrounding her.
I grew up knowing heart disease “runs in the family”. My father and most of his siblings have high blood pressure and cholesterol. My family history of cardiovascular disease (CVD) is part of the reason I have such a strong passion for holistic wellness and nutrition. This family history, in combination with my own problems with insomnia, make these important issues for me. However, since cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and between 50 to 70 million adults suffer from sleep disorders, these are important issues for everyone. (2, 3, 8)
But, what exactly is cardiovascular disease (CVD) and what is the connection with insomnia and sleep deprivation (SD)? In this article, we’ll briefly discuss the research connecting these two disorders, as well as provide heart healthy habits, which can also improve sleep quality.
According to MedicineNet, cardiovascular disease is defined as a “disease affecting the heart or blood vessels. Cardiovascular diseases include arteriosclerosis, coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, arrhythmia, heart failure, hypertension, orthostatic hypotension, shock, endocarditis, diseases of the aorta and its branches, disorders of the peripheral vascular system, and congenital heart disease.” (16) According to the CDC and 2017 statistics, CVD, or more specifically, heart disease, is the leading cause of death, with 647,457 deaths reported that year. (8)
Is there a connection between insomnia, or SD and CVD/heart disease? Yes, research does indicate a direct connection between SD and CVD. Studies indicate that SD causes a 48% increased risk of developing heart disease. Research also shows SD increases risk of high blood pressure, as well as coronary artery calcification. (5, 9, 13)
The reason behind the connection isn’t completely understood, but appears to be caused on two levels. First, under normal quality sleep, blood pressure lowers throughout the night. Research has found that when sleep is disrupted, this process is not allowed to happen. In some cases, this can lead to an elevated blood pressure the following day. There is also a growing body of evidence linking sleep apnea with high blood pressure. Individuals with sleep apnea wake frequently during the night, each time with elevated blood pressure. In the long term this can lead to chronically high blood pressure. Secondly, a recent study done on mice, indicated that SD disrupts hormone production, which triggers inflammation throughout the body, leading to fatty buildup in the arteries. (2, 5, 6, 9, 13)
What is someone to do, with a family history of CVD, as well as problems with insomnia? For starters, eating a whole food plant based diet, similar to the Mediterranean diet (MD), just may be key. The MD is seen by many to be one of the healthiest diets, with much research to back up these claims. (17, 18). However, there is also research which shows that individuals who eat a MD showed improved sleep quality and fewer insomnia symptoms than the control groups. (7) The MD is known to be high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can also improve sleep quality. (12) The MD is a mainly plant based diet, filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. These foods are all recommended for a heart healthy diet, but can also improve sleep quality. Below is list of MD friendly foods, rich in the sleep hormone melatonin, which can help relieve SD and insomnia symptoms. (4, 11):
• herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables
• gogi berries
• kidney bean sprouts
• white radish
• whole grains –
• nuts and seeds –
• flax seed
• sunflower seeds
In addition to dietary changes, two lifestyle changes lower the risk for CVD and improve sleep quality. The first lifestyle change is exercise. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of physical activity for a healthy heart. Dr. Panda, expert on sleep and the circadian rhythm, indicates regular exercise improves sleep quality and duration, as well as improves circadian rhythm function. (1, 14). The second lifestyle change is stress reduction. (1) One way to reduce stress is through meditation. Research has shown that mediation is beneficial to individuals who suffer from CVD. Further research indicates meditation significantly improves sleep quality in individuals suffering from SD or insomnia. (10, 15)
The science community learns more every day about the importance of sleep quality in relation to the health of the body. It seems that sleep is interwoven into every aspect of health and longevity. Deprive the human body of sleep, and the tapestry of the body begins to unravel. In this instance, the health of the human heart and blood vessels is at risk. Thankfully, what helps the human heart and blood vessels, also improves the quality of sleep. We don’t have to fall into the “it runs in the family” trap. We have the power to avoid that trap, as long as we are willing to make the necessary changes.
Tamara Hoerner graduated Summa Cum Laude from Hawthorn’s
Master of Science in Health and Nutrition Education program in 2019. She also holds a double major in Elementary and Special Education from Northern State University and is the founder of Purple Almond Wellness which began as a blog called “The Purple Almond”. The name “Purple Almond” symbolizes what food means to Tamara. Purple symbolizes healing of mind, body, spirit and awareness of self. Almond trees are known as the “tree of life” and symbolize light and awakening. Together, Purple Almond means “Good Nutritious whole food brings light and life to the body, awakening the inherent healing powers within.” Tamara’s passion for nutrition was sparked when she watched others improve their health by changing their diets, so she entered Hawthorn to “learn more”. She plans to work with adults between 40 and 65 years old who struggle with weight, heart disease, or memory issues. Tamara can be reached via her website: http://www.purplealmondwellness.com.
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