A wide body of scientific research has proven again and again that regular sleep is crucial to our health and wellbeing. We’re all pretty clear on that. Yet, even with plentiful evidence of its importance, the fast modern lifestyle has led many people to skimp out on sleep. 

Juggling between work, responsibilities, and personal time has got many adults stretching out their days, cramming in as much waking hours as possible. On top of that, insomnia is a worryingly common issue for men as they age, making sleep deficiency common even among those who’re not trying to skimp out on the z’s.   

With an obvious link between a lack of sleep and increased risk of cardiovascular problems, obesity, and various chronic diseases, scientists continue to research sleep in search of answers that could be potentially life-saving. We still have little understanding of the underlying mechanisms of sleep and how exactly sleep deprivation causes heart problems. However, a study published recently in the scientific journal Nature is pointing to some very valuable clues.  


Inflammatory processes and clogged arteries

Many types of heart diseases entail a condition called atherosclerosis, where arteries harden due to plaque buildup. Impacting men with Type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis is also one of the underlying causes of erectile dysfunction. 

As deposits build up on the walls of arteries, the risk of heart attack or stroke increases because this buildup can lead to lethal ruptures. Immune cells (particularly white blood cells) play a self-sabotaging role here, gathering to the sites where arteries are damaged and generating cells that can contribute to the plaque buildup.  

Conducting the study on mice, researchers from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital wanted to establish whether disrupted sleep triggered immune processes that result in plaque building up in the arteries. Here’s a quick rundown of what they found:

  • The mice that were subjected to sleep disruption through a 12-week period had more plaque buildup in their arteries as compared to the mice that slept undisturbed throughout the experiment.
  • They also had excess levels of white blood cells. 
  • The overproduction of immune cells is triggered by hypocretin, a hormone which promotes wakefulness. Previous research shows that the brains of people with narcolepsy are deficient in the neurons that make this hormone. 
  • The sleep-deprived mice also had lower levels of hypocretin.


What do these findings suggest?

These findings are quite a big deal for future sleep research because they’re showing an important connection between fragmented sleep and vascular disease. The study has shown that lowered hypocretin levels result in heightened levels of inflammatory white blood cells in mice, which in turn further clog arteries and accelerate atherosclerosis. That means that sleep directly helps regulate the production of inflammatory cells and is crucial to keeping arteries healthy. 

This probably isn’t the only mechanism that connects sleep to artery health, but it’s an important finding that could unveil more connections between sleep deprivation and other diseases. Also, the findings have yet to be confirmed on humans, and this future research could hold some key answers. 


Getting to the root of the problem

We don’t have definitive answers to explain the mechanisms behind sleep deprivation, but studies such as this one are helping us get there. For the time being, what we all can do is focus on our sleeping patterns – and if we’re sleep-deprived, look for the root cause. 

Keep in mind that it’s not just a lack of sleep that poses a serious threat to your health – but poor-quality sleep as well. If you’re tossing and turning at night and waking up tired, consider looking further into your sleep patterns and the underlying causes. Disorders such as sleep apnea are a major cause of sleep deficiency, especially among men, and the sooner you’re diagnosed, the quicker you can get to proper treatment. Furthermore, for those who have been diagnosed with OSA (obstructive sleep apnea), optimizing sleep apnea treatment with improved CPAP machines is helping make strides in managing this condition. 


The takeaway

The field of sleep research is vast and full of unanswered questions. Scientists continue to dig deeper and look for root connections in the quest for better understanding of the mechanisms behind sleep – and ultimately finding the answers that will help improve population health. Research that deals specifically with sleep deprivation and disruption gives us important clues and time and time again reinforces the idea that proper sleep is one of the key pillars of health. 

It’s important to stay informed regarding the latest studies – but with or without them, we need to actively work on improving the quality of our sleep. This is especially important when you reach a certain age and waking up countless times at night or not being able to sleep for more than a few hours becomes commonplace. If you’re having trouble sleeping and you’re chronically tired, don’t hesitate to visit a doctor to get to the bottom of the problem. Most importantly, give your lifestyle a close look. After all, sleep goes hand in hand with proper diet and exercise.

Author's Bio: 

Biologist by day, writer by night, and a huge geek. My fields of expertise could be summed up to health, psychology and lifestyle-related topics.