It won’t be news to you that sleep is good for you - mentally and physically. Insomnia is linked to high blood pressure and heart disease, while a good night’s rest can reduce your chances of developing coronary heart disease.
During sleep, your heart rate changes. Your heart slows during deep sleep to protect itself from cardiovascular events (i.e. anything that might damage the heart muscle, like a heart attack). If you’re not getting enough sleep, you could be at greater risk of doing damage to your heart.
What happens to your heart rate when you sleep?
When you’re asleep, your heart rate changes depending on what ‘stage’ of sleep you’re in.
During the first stages of sleep, such as when you’re drifting off and in light sleep to begin with, your heart rate begins to slow down. Then, during deep sleep, your heart rate reaches its lowest levels. During REM (rapid eye movement), however, your heart rate can increase to the same levels as when you’re awake.
The REM sleep stage is when we dream, so your heart rate can increase depending on what is happening in your dream. If your dream is scary or involves physical activity, your heart rate will increase to match this.
This does mean, however, that people who are already vulnerable to heart problems and try to keep their heart rate low, may suffer a heart attack if their heart rate increases too much during REM.
Between 40 to 50 bpm (beats per minute) is considered an average sleeping heart rate for most adults.
It’s important to remember that your sleeping heart rate is not the same as your resting heart rate. Your resting heart rate should be between 60 and 100 bpm.
What can affect your sleeping heart rate?
Sleep problems such as insomnia and sleep apnea can negatively affect your sleeping heart rate. Many sleep disorders can cause increased heart rate which leads to high blood pressure, putting strain on your heart and not giving it a chance to slow down and protect itself from cardiovascular events in the night.
Research has shown that people who suffer with conditions such as sleep apnea and periodic limb movements are very likely to have a high sleeping heart rate, as well as an increased chance of developing cardiovascular diseases.
For more information about sleep apnea, you can read our article ‘Everything you should know about sleep apnea’.
What are the causes of a high sleeping heart rate?
Except for during REM, your heart rate should be much lower during sleep than when awake. A high heart rate can not only cause damage to your heart’s health, but stop you getting a good night’s sleep. Some factors that cause a high sleeping heart rate are:
Stress and Anxiety - Anxious thoughts at night especially can cause a high heart rate as your body is trying to relax. This will stop you being able to get to sleep, as well as negatively impact your heart rate and blood pressure the next day.
Poor Sleep Hygiene - One study found that pushing your bedtime back by even 30 minutes can cause a rise in heart rate. Ensure that your sleep habits and environment is consistent and promotes a healthy, uninterrupted sleep.
Pregnancy - You may experience a higher sleeping heart rate when pregnant as a result of your body attempting to supply more oxygen to the growing foetus. Regular exercise can help to combat this.
If you’re suffering from anxious thoughts at night and think this might be having a serious impact on your health, our article ‘How sleep deprivation can affect your mental health, and vice versa’ can give you some helpful advice, and let you know when to see a doctor.
What are the causes of a low sleeping heart rate?
Bradycardia - the technical term for low heart rate - is common in athletes, and often a sign of a healthy heart. The fitter you are, the more likely you are to have a lower resting heart rate, and therefore a lower sleeping heart rate.
Athletes, for example, often have a resting heart rate of 40 to 60 bpm, similar to most people’s average sleeping heart rate.
However, sometimes a low sleeping heart rate can be a sign of a serious heart condition. Sleep apnea, for example, can cause low heart rate when sleeping as you are not getting enough oxygen.
How can you measure your sleeping heart rate?
Measuring your heart rate when you’re awake is simple: you just need to use two fingers on either your wrist or neck to locate your pulse, then count the number of beats you feel for 60 seconds. That will give you a rough estimate of your heartbeats per minute.
When you’re asleep, of course, you’re not able to do this. Many smartwatches have apps that can measure your heart rate for you while you sleep, giving you the results in an array of tables and charts in the morning. They can even track your heart rate over a period of time, so you can be aware of patterns and abnormalities.
You can also find other wearable devices that will monitor your heart rate through the night. If your doctor thinks you may have a problem with your heart rate as you sleep, they may refer you to a specialist for further testing.
Can sleep deprivation cause heart disease?
Sleep is absolutely vital to your overall physical health, but especially your heart health.
In his TED Talk, Sleep Scientist and Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology, Matthew Walker, explained how we can see the effects of sleep on cardiovascular health by looking at daylight savings time.
When we lose an hour of sleep in the spring, we see a subsequent 24% increase in heart attacks the very next day. However, in the autumn, when we gain an hour of sleep, we see a 21% reduction in heart attacks the day after.
Even the most minimal changes to your sleep can have an effect on your heart’s health, with lack of sleep correlating to heart disease.
One study even found that sleep deprivation can increase a person’s chance of developing or dying from heart disease by 45%.
As you sleep, your heart rate and therefore your blood pressure slow. However, staying awake, or suffering from a condition that causes a high sleeping heart rate, causes your blood pressure to be high all the time. This leads to heart disease and other cardiovascular problems.
Getting six to eight hours of sleep can prevent heart disease
It’s essential that you get enough sleep if you’re worried about your heart’s health. If you think you might be predisposed to a heart condition, for example if you have a family history of heart disease, you should be sure to get the recommended eight hours of sleep per night.
Researchers from the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Centre found that six to eight hours of sleep per night was the optimum amount of sleep for a healthy heart. Their study found that those who suffer the occasional restless night need not worry, but if you’re seriously sleep deprived, then you might be at greater risk of heart disease or stroke.
You can also contact the British Heart Foundation’s Heart Helpline via call, email or live chat to speak to a cardiac nurse about your heart health.
What is the best sleep position for your heart?
There’s not too much research on which sleeping position is better for your heart’s health. However, some experts say that sleeping on your right side could compress your vena cava, slowing blood flow into your heart.
Sleeping on your left side, however, is the best position to sleep in to prevent high blood pressure, as it relieves this tension. Sleeping on your left side can help blood pump around your body and back to your heart more easily.
One study found that for men, sleeping face down can cause a decrease in blood pressure by a significant amount. This ultimately reduces the chances of suffering a heart attack or other cardiovascular event.
If you have a sleep condition like sleep apnea or even snoring, we recommend you don’t sleep on your back, as this can prevent air flow to your lungs and worsen obstructions.
Sleep expert shares three ways to protect your heart when asleep
Martin Seeley, CEO and Sleep Expert at MattressNextDay, recommends the following three ways of improving your sleep to ensure a healthy heart:
1. Research your symptoms - If you think you’re suffering from a heart problem, you should look into your symptoms and see if your sleep is causing a problem.
If you often struggle to get to sleep, or stay asleep, your body won’t have a chance to reset and carry out its biological processes. You should speak to your doctor or healthcare provider if you think your sleep is seriously affecting your heart.
2. Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine before bed - It’s a myth that a night time tipple before bed helps you get to sleep quickly. Your nightcap will just increase your blood pressure, putting unnecessary strain on your heart when it’s supposed to be slowing down.
Make sure your last drop of caffeine is at least six hours before you head to bed. Caffeine increases your heart rate, preventing you from getting to sleep, and prevents your heart from beginning the process of slowing your heart rate down.
3. Go to bed between 10pm and 11pm - Interestingly, research has shown that going to sleep between 10 and 11 at night reduces your chances of developing heart and circulatory disease.
This golden hour has more effect on women than men, and while the reason still isn’t clear, it could be because you’re more likely to wake up to the morning light, which helps set your circadian rhythm. A disrupted circadian rhythm can actually cause high blood pressure, which may lead to more problems down the line.
A consistent, good night’s sleep is vital to your overall physical wellbeing, but is especially important for your heart. If there’s something preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep, you should find ways of overcoming it as a priority.
For example, sleep hygiene is hugely important for a good night’s rest, and entails making sure your sleep environment promotes healthy sleep. A good mattress, staying off of your phone at night and maintaining a consistent bedtime routine are good places to start.
Our article on ‘The most common sleep disorders’ might help you get to the bottom of your sleep problem. If you think your heart is suffering as a result of your sleeping habits, you should speak to your doctor.