Here is why sleep is critical to your heart health

If you can't get through the day without a cup of coffee in your hand, you're not alone.

"Here in America we run on constant sleep deprivation," cardiologist Dr. Salil Patel of the CardioVascular Group says.  "It's well known that Americans don't get the hours of rest that they need. And there is a real consequence to that in terms of health."

And as a heart doctor, Dr. Patel sees the real-life consequences of being chronically starved for sleep.

"We see arrhythmias of the heart, atrial fibrillation, a problem called congestive heart failure, another problem called pulmonary hypertension," Patel says.

He estimates about half of his heart patients struggle with insomnia, sleep apnea or some other sleep disorders. We each have different sleep needs.

Most experts recommend getting 7 hours of sleep a day.  But many Americans don't get nearly that much sleep. Studies show people who get less than 6 hours of sleep a night are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than people who get the recommended amount of sleep.

"There is a common fallacy that you can catch up on the weekends, and make it up," Patel says.  "And, you can't.  Once the damage is done, the damage is done. You don't get to make it up."

So, what can you do to get better sleep? Patel says that's the good news:

"It's never too late to change your habits," he says.

Start by getting regular exercise, about 30 to 40 minutes a day.

Cut out caffeine and other stimulants later in the day.

Watch the alcohol in the evening, which can make it harder to stay asleep.  

Patel says give yourself time to wind down before bedtime.

"If you're using electronics later in the day, try to put those away an hour before you got to bed," he says because the blue light given by your smartphone or laptop can disrupt sleep.

Finally, cut out those daytime naps, which can also make it harder to sleep at night.

"But, if you are going to nap during the day, the experts recommend 20 to 30 minutes’ maximum, to sort of recharge," Patel says.

If you're struggling to sleep or waking up tired, ask your doctor about seeing a sleep specialist.

Dr. Patel often refers patients with insomnia or sleep apnea to a specialist.

He says many come back feeling better, with fewer symptoms.