We’ve heard of ‘beauty sleep’, but getting a good night’s rest does more than help you wake up fresh-faced – it may protect your heart too.

More and more studies outline the benefits of getting enough sleep, and now research shows that it could be good for your heart health too.

Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers discovered one way that sleep protects against the build-up of arterial plaques called atherosclerosis.

They also say that insufficient sleep increases production of inflammatory white blood cells known to be major contributors to atherosclerosis.

Sleep, the great regulator

“We have discovered that sleep helps to regulate the production in the bone marrow of inflammatory cells and the health of blood vessels and that, conversely, sleep disruption breaks down control of inflammatory cell production, leading to more inflammation and more heart disease,” says Filip Swirski, PhD, of the MGH Centre for Systems Biology, senior author. “We also have identified how a hormone in the brain, known to control wakefulness, controls processes in the bone marrow and protects against cardiovascular disease.”

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Disrupted sleep affects the heart

To investigate how insufficient sleep increases atherosclerosis, Swirski’s team subjected mice genetically programmed to develop atherosclerosis to repeated interruptions of their sleep, similar to the experience of someone constantly waking up because of noise or discomfort.

While there were no changes in weight, cholesterol levels or glucose tolerance in the sleep-deprived mice, compared to animals from the same strain allowed to sleep normally, those subjected to sleep fragmentation developed larger arterial plaques and had higher levels of monocytes and neutrophils – inflammatory cells that contribute to atherosclerosis – in their blood vessels.

Disrupted sleep linked to increased white blood cells

Further experiments revealed that the sleep-deprived mice had a nearly two-fold increase in the production in their bone marrow of stem cells that give rise to white blood cells.

A hormone called hypocretin, produced in the brain structure called the hypothalamus and known to have a role in the regulation of sleep was found to play an unexpected role in controlling white blood cell production.

While normally produced at high levels when animals – including humans – are awake, hypocretin levels were significantly reduced in the sleep-deprived mice.

The MGH team found that hypocretin regulates the production of white blood cells through interaction with neutrophil progenitors in the bone marrow. Neutrophils, they discovered, induce monocyte production through the release of a factor called CSF-1, and experiments with mice lacking the gene for hypocretin revealed that the hormone controls CSF-1 expression, monocyte production and the development of arterial plaques. In sleep-deprived animals, the drop in hypocretin led to increased CSF-1 production by neutrophils, elevated monocyte production and accelerated atherosclerosis.

Can extra sleep over the weekend repay sleep debt?

“This is a direct demonstration that hypocretin is also an important inflammatory mediator,” says Swirski, an associate professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School. “We now need to study this pathway in humans, explore additional mechanisms by which proper sleep maintains vascular health and further explore this newly identified neuro-immune axis.”

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital via www.sciencedaily.com 

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