Poor sleep is associated with hypertension, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. However, the mechanism(s) through which sleep loss affects cardiovascular health remains largely unknown, including the brain and body systems that regulate vascular function.
Sixty-six healthy adults participated in a repeated-measures, crossover, experimental study involving assessments of cardiovascular function and brain connectivity after a night of sleep and a night of sleep deprivation.
First, sleep deprivation significantly increased blood pressure—both systolic and diastolic. Interestingly, this change was independent of any increase in heart rate, inferring a vasculature-specific rather than direct cardiac pathway. Second, sleep loss compromised functional brain connectivity within the vascular control network, specifically the insula, anterior cingulate, amygdala, and ventral and medial prefrontal cortices. Third, sleep loss–related changes in brain connectivity and vascular tone were not independent, but significantly interdependent, with changes within the vascular control brain network predicting the sleep-loss shift toward hypertension.
These findings establish an embodied framework in which sleep loss confers increased risk of cardiovascular disease through an impact upon central brain control of vascular tone, rather than a direct impact on accelerated heart rate itself.