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The Latest in Sleep Science at Columbia

March 4, 2024

Columbia scientists are learning how lack of sleep strains our bodies—and how getting more rest lowers the risk for a range of diseases.

How Sleep Helps Lower Your Heart Disease Risk

A new Columbia study has shown how poor sleep damages our blood vessels, and that the right sleep improves heart health.

In the study, 35 healthy women spent six weeks getting 1.5 fewer hours of sleep than their usual routine. They wore sleep-tracking devices on their wrists, and at the end of six weeks, researchers took a sample of the cells that line their blood vessels.

The results: After only six weeks of decreased sleep, the cells that line the blood vessels were flooded with damaging oxidants. Without adequate rest, these cells couldn’t activate an antioxidant response to clear out the destructive molecules. The resulting inflamed and dysfunctional cells are an early step in developing cardiovascular disease.

“This is some of the first direct evidence to show that mild chronic sleep deficits cause heart disease,” said study leader Sanja Jelic, MD, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Columbia. “Many problems could be solved if people sleep at least seven to eight hours per night … People who are young and healthy need to know that if they keep getting less sleep than that, they're aggravating their cardiovascular risk.”

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How Sleep Lowers Your Diabetes Risk

 A recent Columbia University study found that shortening sleep by an hour and a half for more than a month raised the risk of diabetes in women—especially for postmenopausal participants.

“Throughout their lifespan, women face many changes in their sleep habits due to childbearing, child-rearing, and menopause,” said study leader Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, director of the Center of Excellence for Sleep and Circadian Research at Columbia. “And more women than men have the perception they aren’t getting enough sleep.”

This study followed 38 women who wore sleep-tracking devices at home while shortening their nightly sleep by an hour and a half. Researchers measured their glucose, insulin, and body fat throughout the six-week period.

The results: The study found that when women shortened their nightly sleep by 90 minutes, insulin resistance (a decreased ability to control blood sugar that could lead to type 2 diabetes) jumped by 15 percent overall and by more than 20 percent in women who were postmenopausal.

“The bottom line is that getting adequate sleep each night may lead to better blood sugar control and reduced risk for type 2 diabetes, especially among postmenopausal women,” said St-Onge.

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Sleep Named a Top Lifestyle Habit for Heart Health

The American Heart Association (AHA) promotes a Cardiovascular Health Checklist, which recommends eight habits for heart health, including diet, physical activity, avoiding smoking, and more. In 2022, the AHA added sleep to that essential list. And Columbia research—including a study that found poor sleep among women is linked to lower cardiovascular health scores—was cited as evidence for the update.

"Sleep is taking its rightful place as a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” said Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, assistant professor of medical sciences in the Department of Medicine (in Cardiology) at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Research has shown that more than 80 percent of cardiovascular events, including heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms, and coronary artery disease, are preventable with healthy lifestyles and management of known risks.

“Think about small things you can improve, mentally and physically, and do the best you can to improve each factor,” Dr. Aggarwal said of the AHA Checklist. “And keep at it every day. Healthy habits have a cumulative effect over time.”

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