A Short Guide to Higher Heart Disease Risk For Women

Ask just about any woman if she’d like a higher risk of heart disease and you can predict the answer. Of course not, who would? Quite a few women, if their behavior is any indication. Here is a very short guide to getting a sicker heart for women.

There has been a lot of coverage in the media over the last few years about women and heart disease. We’ve been told that many American women, as well as their counterparts in other developed nations, have unique challenges when it comes to heart health. In spite of this, heart disease continues to kill nearly 300,000 American women each year. (1)

In spite of the title of this piece, I’m not rooting for women to get heart disease. In fact, just the opposite. To that end, I’m going to highlight a new study out of Columbia University Irving Medical Center which shines a light on a serious issue for women. The research team there has focused on this issue, but has identified a number of interconnected behaviors and outcomes that put women seriously at risk for heart disease.

What the science types at Columbia found was that women who sleep poorly engage in other heart-unfriendly behaviors, like overeating and eating low quality foods. This leads to greater risk of metabolic disorders like obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The researchers connect the dots between poor sleep habits and these “lifestyle diseases.”

There is already a body of research regarding poor or inadequate sleep and the propensity to suffer from obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Some of this research has connected poor dietary habits to sleep habits as a partial explanation.

Unlike many of those previous studies, the Columbia team didn’t narrowly focus on specific foods or food groups, such as sweets or saturated fats. Their study was designed to develop a more comprehensive look at the associations between overall diet and a variety of aspects of sleep for women.

“Women are particularly prone to sleep disturbances across the life span, because they often shoulder the responsibilities of caring for children and family and, later, because of menopausal hormones,” says Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and senior author of the study.

The study of nearly 500 women was published online in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The team dug in on the eating and sleeping habit of a group of women aged 20 to 76. The group was ethnically diverse. Included in the sleep portion of the study was a look at the quality of sleep, how long it took to fall asleep and insomnia. On the dietary side, the women reported on the kinds of foods they ate and how much of it was consumed over the course of a year. This allowed researchers to get a good gauge of their typical eating patterns and habits.

They noted some key connections. Like previous research, they found that women who had the worst overall sleep quality ate foods with high levels of added sugars. This is a risk factor for both obesity and diabetes.

Those who took longer to fall asleep ate more food by weight and had higher caloric intake levels. Women with severe insomnia symptoms ate more food by weight and also tended toward foods with higher saturated fats than women with milder insomnia.

“Our interpretation is that women with poor-quality sleep could be overeating during subsequent meals and making more unhealthy food choices,” says Aggarwal.

The question remains: How might poor sleep contribute to poor eating?

“Poor sleep quality may lead to excessive food and calorie intake by stimulating hunger signals or suppressing signals of fullness,” says Faris Zuraikat, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and lead author of the study. “Fullness is largely affected by the weight or volume of food consumed, and it could be that women with insomnia consume a greater amount of food in an effort to feel full.

“However, it’s also possible that poor diet has a negative impact on women’s sleep quality,” adds Zuraikat. “Eating more could also cause gastrointestinal discomfort, for instance, making it harder to fall asleep or remain asleep.”

“Given that poor diet and overeating may lead to obesity — a well-established risk factor for heart disease — future studies should test whether therapies that improve sleep quality can promote cardiometabolic health in women,” says Aggarwal.

While sleep certainly isn’t the only factor in keeping your heart healthy and strong, it certainly seems to be important. Get some sleep. You’ll feel better and, apparently, you’ll make better food choices!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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  1. https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2016/16_0211.htm

Material Source – Columbia University Irving Medical School

Journal Reference – Faris M. Zuraikat, Nour Makarem, Ming Liao, Marie‐Pierre St‐Onge, Brooke Aggarwal. Measures of Poor Sleep Quality Are Associated With Higher Energy Intake and Poor Diet Quality in a Diverse Sample of Women From the Go Red for Women Strategically Focused Research Network. Journal of the American Heart Association, 2020; 9 (4) DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.119.014587

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