If you're looking for a great holiday cocktail hour topic, try this: an extra hour of sleep can be good for your heart. A new study just reported indicates that an extra hour can lower your risk of developing calcium deposits in your arteries. Yes, calcium is good for you, but not in your arteries. If you get technical with your cocktail friends, remind them that calcium deposits are a precursor of heart disease. Also not a good thing.

This isn’t surprising to me. Too little sleep has been linked to several health troubles, from obesity and diabetes, to an increased risk for stroke and high blood pressure. This recent study looked at nearly 500 people between 35 and 47 years old, each one equipped with a special wrist gadget that kept their sleep patterns recorded. The researchers then used computed tomography (CT) scans to evaluate the buildup of calcium inside their heart arteries. They performed one scan at the start of the study and one five years later.

Even after accounting for factors like age, gender, race, education, smoking, and risk for sleep apnea, the scientists discovered that how long a person sleeps may play a significant role in the development of calcium buildup in the arteries. About 12 percent of the people studied developed artery calcification, and among those who slept fewer than five hours a night, 27 percent had developed artery calcification. That percentage dropped to 11 among those who slept five to seven hours, and then to 6 percent among those who slept more than seven hours a night.

Why? We don’t know exactly. It could be a combination of reasons or one we haven’t identified yet. We do know that people who sleep longer tend to have lower blood pressure, which falls during sleep. Sleep also protects us from too much exposure to the stress hormone cortisol, which also dips during sleep. Chronic exposure to cortisol can trigger lots of unhealthy consequences, one of which is a higher risk for cardiovascular problems.

With all the stress people feel theses days, sleep can be a remedy to cope, and to do good for your heart, which bears so much of that stress. How many of us have felt our hearts beat faster upon hearing bad news lately? Last week I wrote about sleep being one of the best gifts of all this holiday season. I think this new study offers more credence to that suggestion.

And it can be the best gift you give yourself.

Michael Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™