Sleep is an essential part of our life. It helps us recharge for the next day. Research in this area has helped understand various sleep disorders.
But most of the research has asked how different women’s sleep patterns are compared to men.
Why is insomnia more common in women?
The National Sleep Foundation poll, one of the earliest in the field, found that 46% of women reported having trouble sleeping almost every night. Other studies also conclude that insomnia is 40% more common in women.
A prominent reason for this difference is biological, where hormone production changes during pregnancy, postpartum, menopause, and menstruation. But social and cultural reasons such as work and family also play a role, according to the survey.
Gender and sleep
Gender differences have important scientific ramifications. For example, almost a decade ago the Food and Drug Administration cut the recommended dose of zolpidem, a drug similar to Ambien, in half for women to treat insomnia. It did so after the discovery that women metabolized the drug much more slowly than men – which led to gender-based guidelines.
“It was important to address the issue of gender differences – biological differences between women and men – to point out that there are differences in sleep for both sexes,” said Dr. Monica Mallampalli, Senior Scientific Advisor to Healthywomen.org and a board member of the Alliance for Sleep Apnea.
For example, obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts again, typically occurs in men. But women also experience it, explained Mallampalli.
“Usually they’re misdiagnosed or undiagnosed, and the symptoms they show are very different from those of a typical man,” she said, adding, “It’s also mostly hormonal.” Fibromyalgia, a condition that causes pain throughout the body, has also been linked to insomnia, which climaxes in women during puberty and menopause, both phases of hormonal change.
What types of sleep problems do women have?
1. Depression, anxiety and stress
Sleep is often linked to mental health, and women have been shown to be more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Studies show that women are more likely to think about concerns that may affect their ability to fall asleep or get back to sleep.
According to one study, around 30% of women say they sleep infrequently, and more than 50% have insomnia-like symptoms. Neck and back pain, coupled with difficulty finding a comfortable sleeping position, can affect the quality of sleep. These problems can persist after giving birth.
3. Obstructive sleep apnea
Women with sleep problems like obstructive sleep apnea are less likely to be referred to specialist sleep clinics, according to a study of gender bias in diagnosing sleep disorders. Mallampalli explained that obstructive sleep apnea is often underdiagnosed in women.
4. Restless legs syndrome
This syndrome creates severe suppression of the limbs, especially the legs, when lying down. Restless legs syndrome is also more common in men than women. Mallampalli adds that this syndrome is common in pregnant women.
How do you improve the quality of your sleep?
Environmental stimuli such as bright lights in the bedroom, traffic noise, music, television, room temperature, pets and bed partners can affect sleep. The Society for Women’s Health Research has created a guide to women and sleep that suggests darkening rooms with blackout blinds and drapes, turning off electronics in the room, and double-glazing windows to reduce noise.
Earplugs, eye masks, and white noise devices are also extremely helpful. Caffeine and electronic devices should be avoided at night, as should stimuli such as nicotine and alcohol, according to the researchers.
Mallampalli, who helped create this guide, believes that as awareness spreads, more women will be able to stand up for themselves and consult their doctors about sleep health. And so a change can begin.