Steps to a Healthier Heart

Sleep plays an important role in maintaining a healthy heart

By Shanna Hogan 

Give Paul Johnson hiking boots, a well-marked trail and the splendor of nature, and he’s a happy man. “I love the outdoors,” he says. 

But the retired printing-press operator was not so happy last fall when respiratory and cardiac health issues landed him in Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center, not once but twice. 

Paul’s main symptom was shortness of breath, likely caused by a double whammy of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and congestive heart failure (CHF). The breathing problems flared up when Paul lay down to sleep. 

If there’s some good that came from his two hospital stays, it’s that Paul not only received excellent care, he also learned new ways to improve his heart health.

As a registered nurse and cardiac educator for the medical center, it’s Marina Mitchell’s job to teach patients with heart failure how to thrive in spite of their condition. She guides them in managing symptoms, eating healthier, taking medications correctly, exercising safely and making other positive changes, such as obtaining adequate sleep. 

Patients often are surprised to hear about the connection between sleep and heart health, which is well researched. 

“If you have heart disease you are predisposed to sleep problems,” Marina says. “If you are not getting enough sleep or if you are getting too much sleep, your risk of mortality rises significantly,” she adds. “It can be a vicious cycle.”

A healthy heart has adequate circulation supported by stable blood pressure, a normal pulse and pumping rhythm, no plaque accumulation and no shortness of breath. 

“Too little sleep – anything less than six hours a night – can cause a greater accumulation of stress hormones and lead to inflammation in the body,” Marina says. “That can lead to high blood pressure, accumulation of plaque or coronary artery disease, obesity and diabetes.” 

Inadequate sleep also can trigger anxiety, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke. 

“Even a single night being deprived of sleep can lead to some of this. It can happen that quickly,” Marina says.

Conversely, too much sleep can stiffen the artery walls. 

 “We want an average of seven to eight hours a night,” Marina says. “If you go over that – greater than nine or 10 hours – you end up with many of the detrimental effects that come with lack of sleep.”

As we age, our sleep patterns also shift. “Age can definitely play a factor in our sleep patterns,” Marina says. “But the duration needs to be the same. You still need seven to eight hours.”

 Technology can also improve sleep, including respiratory machines, such as CPAP devices, for those who suffer from sleep apnea. As for sleep medicines, even with over-the-counter sleep aids like melatonin, Marina suggests checking with your doctor first.

To improve sleep patterns and heart health, she recommends maintaining a healthy body weight and undergoing annual heart checkups. 

“You should always be working on lifestyle as a component to heart health,” she says. 

Paul has taken that advice to heart. He learned that placing a pillow behind his back helps elevate his chest, making it easier to breathe at night. Now he’s sleeping better and he’s dropped 20 pounds by eating healthier.

“My goal is to be able to hike again,” he says.

Pictured: Kenneth Lee (foreground), Gladys Blossfeld and Ed Hahn in a Heart Healthy Class taught by Marina Mitchell, RN.


Marina Mitchell will present “Sleep and Heart Health”
from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 27, at The Colonnade,
19116 N. Colonnade Way, Surprise. For more information,
see page 7. Registration is required.

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