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Think Women Sleep Worse Than Men? You’re Right

Women are more likely than men to have insomnia — but research suggests there may be ways to get more z's


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When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, there’s a gender gap. Women of all ages report more symptoms of insomnia — such as trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and feeling rested during the day — than men do, a report from the Society for Women’s Health Research found. And while men may be less likely to complain about their sleep woes, there’s plenty of reasons why women may suffer from poorer sleep, says Phyllis Zee, director of the Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine at Northwestern University, Chicago.

‘’I don’t think we know definitively why, but it could be related to menstrual cycles, pregnancies, and hormonal and other changes in physiology around menopause,” she says. And women frequently fill more roles than men: “They are caregivers at almost every stage of their lives,” assisting children, aging parents, spouses and partners, she adds.

Many women are aware of the immediate price they pay for nights of lost sleep, from grogginess to irritability. But years of poor sleep can impact brain health. Sleep deprivation impairs attention, memory and executive function, and increases cognitive complaints in middle-aged adults, according to the Global Council of Brain Health. Sleeping well through the life span is likely to promote better cognitive functioning with age, the council says.

Studies that focus on the fragmented sleep associated with insomnia show that it’s linked with faster cognitive decline. It’s also a risk factor for stroke and depression, the council says. Researchers have also learned that obstructive sleep apnea — a problem most common in older men — is an under-recognized and undertreated problem in women, says Michael Grandner, director of the sleep and health research program at the University of Arizona, Tucson. People with sleep apnea have trouble maintaining open airways as they sleep, leading to interrupted breathing during the night. Common symptoms include snoring, gasping for breath, and fatigue. When the condition goes untreated, the short-term effects can be “profound,” Grandner says, and can include problems with thinking, memory and focus — and even an increase in car accidents.

“In the longer term, it does seem to increase the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia,” he says. Early diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea, especially in midlife, “could make a huge difference” over time, Grandner says.

How can women protect their sleep and brain health? Sleep experts suggest:

  • Find a healthy sleeping and waking rhythm. This includes going to bed and getting up at the same time each day, but also eating and exercising at the same time, and not too close to bedtime. When you stick to routines, you help your brain know when it’s time to sleep and time to be awake, Zee says. Also, go outside and experience natural light each day, she says — that also helps your body clock to stay in sync.
  • Try getting just a little more sleep — and don't feel bad if you seem to need more shut-eye than the men in your life. Some research suggests women have a biological need for about 20 minutes more sleep each night than men do, according to the National Sleep Foundation. 
  • If you are struggling with hot flashes and night sweats, try lowering the temperature in your bedroom and wearing moisture-wicking pajamas to stay more comfortable. Improved sleep may also reduce your hot flashes, Zee says.
  • Pay attention to how you feel and function during the day. If you are constantly sleepy, lack energy or feel irritable for reasons you cannot pin down, suspect poor sleep — even if you haven’t noticed trouble sleeping.
  • If you suspect a sleep disorder, seek help. An effective treatment for insomnia is a form of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, experts agree. And while the best-known therapy for sleep apnea is wearing a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) mask, many women have milder symptoms that can be treated with a simple mouthpiece that repositions the jaw, Grandner says.

The good news: If you’re struggling with sleep, you’re not destined to spend decades staring at the ceiling. “It’s probably going to get better,” Grandner says, “and if it doesn’t, it’s probably a condition that’s highly treatable.”

Do women sleep worse than men?
Research suggests women have a biological need for about 20 minutes more sleep each night than men do.

Correct! Learn ways to calm an anxious mind.

Incorrect. Women have a biological need for about 20 more minutes a night than men.

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