Otherwise healthy adults with chronically limited sleep showed abnormal heart rate patterns in a study published in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology. This cardiovascular dysregulation was found independent from any diagnosed sleep disorders.

Researchers from Montana State University in Bozeman divided 35 otherwise healthy men and women into two groups: those getting at least 7 hours of sleep (normal sleeping) and those sleeping fewer than 7 hours (short sleeping). Participants were screened first by two validated sleep quality surveys and then by an at-home monitor to test for sleep-disordered breathing.

The team then observed participants overnight in a lab-controlled sleep study. They were also followed for a minimum of 7 days at home via a wrist sensor, which allowed researchers to observe participants’ sleep under more real-world conditions.  

“We really have to look at sleep as a major pillar of our overall health just like we look at physical activity, exercise and nutrition,” says co-author Jason Robert Carter, PhD, in a release.

While we sleep, our brains will periodically show spikes in activity called spontaneous cortical arousals. The researchers studied how the heart rates of normal sleeping and short-sleeping participants reacted to these incidents. While the two groups had a similar number of cortical arousals, the short sleeping group showed more elevated heart rate after these incidents and their heart rates took longer to return to normal than the heart rates of normal sleepers.

“These findings offer evidence of nocturnal cardiovascular dysregulation in habitual short sleepers,” the researchers wrote.

Blunted heart rate recovery to spontaneous nocturnal arousals in short-sleeping adults” is highlighted as part of the American Physiological Society’s APSselect program.