If you’ve joined our Healthier Heart Challenge then you are likely working on the earlier habits that we have recommended which focus on getting screened and having baseline measurements in order to track your progress as you begin to embrace exercise habits and changes your diet. Remember that built into this challenge is the recommendation that you take your time with each habit change, allowing your body and mindset to become comfortable with what may be some challenging behavior changes. Don’t take on another habit change, until you feel very comfortable with the prior suggestions. Also remember that this is not an “all or nothing” challenge. We expect you to encounter roadblocks and those roadblocks may mean a day or several days of “falling off the wagon.” Do not let those moments de-rail your efforts. Your heart health is at stake.
Sleep and your heart
So why are we focused on sleep as your next habit change? Most Americans sacrifice sleep for a variety of reasons. But even a few bad nights of sleep can impact health, and chronic lack of adequate sleep which includes not sleeping enough hours nightly or not experiencing quality, restorative sleep regularly impacts health because it can cause an:
- Increased risk of hypertension
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Increased risk of stroke
- Increased risk of obesity
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Increased risk of depression
If you look at the above list, you see that most of these health risks relate directly to heart health. The mechanism behind the link between sleep loss and an elevated risk of heart disease may be due to a direct impact on blood pressure (causing elevation), impaired glucose tolerance and sympathetic hyperactivity. Having a diagnosis of obesity or diabetes raises the risk of heart disease, independent of other risk factors.
People who don’t sleep well seem to be especially vulnerable to gaining weight and developing obesity. Staying up late can mean many more hours of eating – from boredom and also because watching TV is associated with mindless eating. Beyond that, obesity is associated with risk of developing sleep apnea, a dangerous condition that interferes with quality sleep and raises the risk of developing heart disease.
Identifying bad habits
We are all guilty of having habits that encourage sleepless nights. Eating a big meal at night or eating close to bedtime can cause abdominal discomfort and poor sleep quality. Using tech devices which omit disruptive light too close to bedtime or watching TV in bed can instigate a cycle of insomnia or disrupted sleep. A lack of daily exercise or physical activity may limit ability to initiate restful, quality sleep at the appropriate time. If you continue to dwell on the day’s events, then it’s likely you will have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
Learning about sleep hygiene and following the recommended guidelines can help you to achieve consistent, restful, adequate sleep nightly. What is sleep hygiene? It’s a series of recommendations that help you to disconnect from activity and prepare your body for sleep. Remember, it may take you time to accomplish all of the sleep hygiene recommendations, but when you do, you will likely begin to appreciate deep, restorative, regular sleep that will promote heart health.
Sleep hygiene guidelines:
- Go to sleep at the same time every night, including weekends
- Avoid naps if you have been struggling with falling asleep at night
- Don’t stay in bed awake for more than ten minutes
- Don’t watch TV or work on any tech devices within two hours of bedtime
- Stop drinking or eating caffeinated products by 2 P.M.
- Exercise regularly but not too close to bedtime (you can do gentle yoga or meditation)
- Avoid heavy night meals
- Create a soothing, cool environment in your bedroom and use black out curtains if necessary
- If you have been prescribed a sleeping aid, meet with your doctor regularly to wean from these drugs while maintaining your sleep hygiene habits
- Treat chronic pain issues that may be interfering with sleep
Given the hectic pace of life that most of us experience, it’s also conceivable that one reason you may be having trouble falling asleep is that you may not be able to turn off all the unresolved issues of the day. A 2018 psychology study suggests that writing a to-do list before going to bed is a helpful habit that can calm your brain by alleviating these thoughts. It will help you to avoid “cycling through all the things you need to do,” by simply jotting those items down so you can rest assured they await your attention the next day.
Challenge yourself to pick a few items off the sleep hygiene list when you are ready to tackle this habit and then keep adding more when you are ready and let’s get a good night’s sleep!
Next week: Dealing with Stress
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”