It’s no secret that poor sleep can be bad for your health.

Now, EVMS scientists have published research that describes a particularly dangerous consequence. Their work in the journal Circulation Research details how insufficient sleep supports the development of atherosclerosis — where fat deposits build up in the arteries and restrict blood flow.

“Atherosclerosis is a significant public health problem that causes 25 percent of all global deaths,” says Elena Galkina, PhD, Professor of Microbiology Department and a member of the Center for Integrative Neuroscience and Inflammatory Diseases. “There is growing evidence that environmental modifiers such as diet, exercise, and sleep might affect progression of heart disease.”

Sleep is important for our health. “When we do not sleep well, it can make atherosclerosis worse,” Dr. Galkina says.

In the U.S., an estimated 70 million people report insufficient sleep and/or disturbed sleep due to work responsibilities, care-giving, and lifestyle choices. Changes in sleep are also part of the normal aging process, with increasing disturbed sleep, nighttime awakenings and a tendency for daytime sleep. Sleep problems can affect the immune system and blood vessels, making atherosclerosis develop faster.

Dr. Galkina and her team sought to unravel the longstanding question about the effects of sleep disturbances on atherosclerosis development.

The team discovered that fragmented sleep induces increased activation of neutrophil (a type of white blood cell) and accelerated plaque formation. Importantly, the team showed that the absence of good quality sleep promotes the formation of atherosclerotic plaques with increased vulnerabilities that often lead to serious complications, such as stroke and heart attack.

Mechanistically, the depletion of neutrophils produced by sleep fragmentation reduced plaque formation, Dr. Galkina says. Neutrophil depletion also attenuated the activated phenotype of lesions, suggesting that neutrophils are the key plaques in the modulation of vessel health by disturbed sleep.

“Based on our study, we propose to consider sleep as a new important modifiable factor in supporting health of blood vessels,” said Alina Moriarty, a PhD student and AHA Predoctoral Fellow in the Galkina laboratory.

Larry Sanford, PhD, Professor in Anatomy and Pathology, Director of the Center for Integrative Neuroscience and Inflammatory Diseases and a collaborator on this project, added: “Increasing the awareness of the benefits of healthy sleep should be a goal across public health campaigns,” highlighting the importance of sleep and the consequences of insufficient sleep.

The finding was published online in the Circulation Research in a paper titled “Disturbed Sleep Supports Neutrophil Activation and Promotes Atherosclerosis and Plaque Necrosis”. This work was supported by AHA Predoctoral fellowship for Alina Moriarty, AHA Innovative Project Award, the Ryan Grant, and seed funds of the Center for Integrative Neuroscience and Inflammatory Diseases for Elena Galkina.