Defining poor sleep is challenging. A sufficient amount of sleep for one individual may be inadequate for another individual or even the same individual when confronted with an increase in physical or mental stress during the wakeful hours. Sleep deprivation can be acute—a drastic reduction in sleep for one to two nights—or chronic—a mild or moderate sleep deficiency over several nights. Long-term sleep deprivation can be bad for the heart because it can contribute to obesity (increased hunger) and increase stress levels.
One problem called obstructive sleep apnea can have a direct negative effect on the cardiovascular system. This condition typically occurs from collapse of the throat during sleep, which leads to obstruction of the flow of air into the lungs until the lack of air arouses the individual to a semiconscious state. This then restores muscle tone in the throat, allowing the flow of air into the lungs. During the times of airflow obstruction, lung pressures increase and blood pressures may increase quite high before airflow is restored.
This cycle of air obstruction, hypertension, arousal, and restoration of airflow may occur hundreds of times per night and over time can cause daytime elevation of blood pressure and also pulmonary hypertension (increased pressure in the lung arteries). Obstructive sleep apnea is also tied to heart arrhythmias and maybe even atherosclerosis. Special sleep studies can diagnose the condition by monitoring airflow during normal sleep time.
Obesity and increased neck girth are among the most common causes of obstructive sleep apnea, and weight loss or surgery to remove the uvula in the back of the throat are effective treatments for this condition. Obstructive sleep apnea can also be treated with a machine that provides air pressure to prevent the throat from closing down and obstructing airflow during sleep. This treatment is referred to as CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure).
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