Chronic Inflammation May Link Fitful Sleep and Cardiovascular Disease
Disrupted nightly sleep is a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and chronic inflammation appears to be the link connecting the two, according to new research published in the journal PLOS Biology.
“We’ve discovered that fragmented sleep is associated with a unique pathway — chronic circulating inflammation throughout the bloodstream — which, in turn, is linked to higher amounts of plaques in coronary arteries,” said study senior author Dr. Matthew Walker, a University of California (UC) Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience.
Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death among Americans, with about 12,000 deaths each week. Established risk factors for cardiovascular disease in humans include poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, high blood pressure and smoking.
“To the best of our knowledge, these data are the first to associate sleep fragmentation, inflammation and atherosclerosis in humans,” said study lead author Dr. Raphael Vallat, a postdoctoral researcher in Walker’s Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley.
Using statistical modeling, the researchers analyzed the diagnostic data of more than 1,600 middle-aged and older adults using a national dataset known as the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis.
To isolate the effect of sleep quality on heart health, the researchers controlled for several factors, including age, ethnicity, gender, body mass index, sleep disorders, blood pressure and high-risk behaviors such as smoking.
The team then evaluated the results of the participants, analyzing their blood tests, their calcium scores that can gauge plaque buildup, as well as several different measures of sleep, including wrist watch-assessed sleep across a week and a night in a sleep laboratory that measured electrical brainwave signals.
The final outcome showed a clear link between disrupted sleep patterns and higher concentrations of circulating inflammatory factors, particularly white blood cells known as monocytes and neutrophils, which are key players in atherosclerosis.
“In revealing this link with chronic inflammation, the findings suggest a missing middleman that is brokering the bad deal between fragmented sleep and the hardening of blood vessels,” Walker said.
“Indeed, these associational results in humans mirror recent data in which experimentally manipulated sleep disruption in mice led to higher levels of circulating inflammation that caused atherosclerotic lesions in the rodents,” added Vallat.
The findings linking poor sleep to atherosclerosis via chronic inflammation have major public health implications, researchers said.
For example, atherosclerosis often begins in early adulthood. “Unfortunately, this process goes largely unnoticed until the plaque buildup, in middle or old age, suddenly blocks arterial blood flow to the heart, lungs, brain and/or other organs, hence its moniker, ‘silent killer,'” said Vallat.
“The insidious nature of the disease requires that we pay attention to our sleep hygiene, even starting in early to midlife,” said study co-lead author Vyoma Shah, a doctoral student in Walker’s lab.
To more accurately measure sleep quality, the researchers recommend the use of clinical grade sleep trackers, because people’s subjective assessments of their sleep are not reliable.
“If you track your sleep patterns using objective measures, the same way you track your weight, blood pressure or cholesterol, you can make modifications to your sleep habits, which could make a tangible difference to later life health outcomes,” said Shah.
With chronic inflammation acting as a bridge between poor sleep and cardiovascular disease, it’s worth investigating its role in a host of other diseases where inflammation is known to be a possible factor, the researchers said.
“This link between fragmented sleep and chronic inflammation may not be limited to heart disease, but could include mental health and neurological disorders, such as major depression and Alzheimer’s disease,” Walker said. “These are new avenues we must now explore.”
Pedersen, T. (2020). Chronic Inflammation May Link Fitful Sleep and Cardiovascular Disease. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/06/09/chronic-inflammation-may-link-fitful-sleep-and-cardiovascular-disease/157195.html