Science explains why sleep helps prevent heart disease

February 15, 2019
Sleeping - heart

SCIENTISTS are getting closer to solving the mystery of how a good night’s sleep protects against heart disease.

In studies using mice, they discovered a previously unknown mechanism between the brain, bone marrow, and blood vessels that appears to protect against the development of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries — but only when sleep is healthy and sound.

The discovery of this pathway underscores the importance of getting enough, quality sleep to maintain cardiovascular health and could provide new targets for fighting heart disease.

“We’ve identified a mechanism by which a brain hormone controls production of inflammatory cells in the bone marrow in a way that helps protect the blood vessels from damage,” said Filip Swirski, the study lead author who also is an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “This anti-inflammatory mechanism is regulated by sleep, and it breaks down when you frequently disrupt sleep or experience poor sleep quality.”

Recent research has linked sleep deficiency and certain sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, as well as heart disease. But scientists have known little about the cellular and molecular underpinnings that could help explain the link between sleep and cardiovascular health.

Poor or insufficient sleep is a major public health problem affecting millions of people of all ages. Studies showed that getting enough quality sleep at the right times is vital for health.

To learn more about the impact of this deficiency on cardiovascular disease, the researchers focused on a group of mice that were genetically engineered to develop atherosclerosis. They disrupted the sleep patterns of half the mice and allowed the other half to sleep normally.

Over time, the mice with disrupted sleep developed progressively larger arterial lesions compared to the other mice. Specifically, the sleep-disrupted mice developed arterial plaques, or fatty deposits, that were up to one-third larger than the mice with normal sleep patterns.

The sleep-disrupted mice also produced twice the level of certain inflammatory cells in their circulatory system than the control mice — and also lower amounts of a hypocretin, a hormone made by the brain that is thought to play a key role in regulating sleep and wake states.

The study was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).