Are women getting the sleep they need?
When it comes to sleep, it’s easy to assume that there’s a level playing field between the genders with both requiring around 7-9 hours of good quality sleep a night. However, according to the Sleep Foundation, this could be the first place where women fall down. According to a leading expert in sleep science, it’s thought that on average, women need around 20 minutes of extra sleep compared to men.1
This might not sound like much but, when you consider that many women are struggling to get the required 7-9 hours of sleep in the first place it all adds up! In fact, one poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that women are more likely than men to experience difficult falling and staying asleep2 and, more importantly, studies are now finding that women could be more prone to sleep problems such as sleep deprivation and insomnia when compared to their male counterparts.
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, conducted a retrospective clinical audit of 744 patients who received sleep-related healthcare between 2013 and 2015. The patients completed a variety of sleep-related questionnaires. The results showed that women were more likely to experience severe symptoms of depression, trouble sleeping at night and excessive daytime sleepiness.3
This doesn’t exactly sound like good news for women but, is this study taking everything into consideration and, if it is, why are women more vulnerable to certain sleep related problems compared to men? In order to answer these questions, first I’m going to look at a few factors that could be having an impact on female sleep patterns before examining whether men are really less susceptible to problematic sleep.
Why are women more vulnerable to poor sleep?
Okay, so women may need an extra 20 minutes of sleep each night but why are we more likely to experience symptoms such as sleep deprivation and disruption? Well, there are a few factors that could be influencing our sleep patterns as I shall explore below!
1 – Hormones: It’s hardly surprising that hormones can have an impact on our sleep patterns, especially when you consider how often they fluctuating during our lifetime – our menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause are all regulated by rising and falling levels of certain hormones like oestrogen and progesterone. For example, around 30% of women find that their sleep patterns become disrupted during their periods as falling levels of hormones upset their moods and induce other uncomfortable symptoms such as cramps, muscle pain and headaches.4 These symptoms only seem to get worse later on during menopause when there’s a marked drop in oestrogen and it’s often a point of discussion for our Menopause Expert Eileen.
2 – Hectic lifestyles: Women often struggle to achieve a work-life balance compared to men as, in many cases, they still have to balance their role as primary caregiver with other demands. This means that women are less likely to prioritise their own wellbeing or to take time out to themselves as they dash around, trying to juggle their responsibilities. However, this imbalance can impact their emotional and mental wellbeing, leading to troublesome feelings of stress and anxiety which can easily make it difficult for them to fall asleep and remain that way.
3 – Stress and anxiety: The NHS has reported that women are more likely to suffer from anxiety than men, possibly due to a few of the reasons I’ve just mentioned.5 As I’ve explored in previous blogs, these two emotions can wreak havoc on your sleep patterns as they can stimulate your ‘flight or fight’ reflexes. Once these primordial instincts are triggered it encourages the release of cortisol, a steroid hormone that will promote feelings of wakefulness and alertness whilst reducing your secretions of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
4 – Increase nutritional demands: Women might not have the same calorific demand as men but sometimes they do have additional nutritional needs that, if not met, could potentially impact their sleep. Iron deficiency, for example, is a big problem amongst menstruating women as they lose blood and therefore iron on a regular basis. It’s also worth noting that women’s demand for calcium can increase during menopause too as low levels of oestrogen can leave them vulnerable to bone and joint problems.
5 – Women have different sleep cycles from men Daytime sleepiness is a big problem for women and one possible reason is that our circadian clock is set earlier than men’s. This means that we’re more inclined to go to sleep earlier and to wake up at a correspondingly early time. Unfortunately, we rarely account for this change in sleep cycle, which means that we often stay up late and in many cases, still get up at an earlier time leading to inevitable bouts of sleep deprivation.
What about men’s sleep patterns?
Okay, so far we’ve examine how women seem to have the rougher end of the deal when it comes to sleep, being more prone to disturbances, deprivation and problems like insomnia. However, as our Men’s Health Expert Dr. Jen Tan explores in his blog, ’How does sleep differ for men?’ men have their fair share of sleep issues to contend with too.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) is actually more prevalent in men than in women.6 This troubling sleep problem occurs when the walls of the throat relax too much during sleep, potentially obstructing your breathing and causing symptoms such as snoring, laboured breathing and even gasping
- Men also spend less time in deep sleep, an important sleep phase where your body conducts essential repair work. Not getting enough deep sleep can impact everything, from your immune function to how quickly you recover from injury so it can be worrying if you’re not spending enough time in this sleep phase
- The good news for women is that, while they might be more prone to sleep deprivation and daytime tiredness, they’re also better at coping with it when compared to their male counterparts. Studies have found that men do not function as well when exposed to sleep deprivation with their concentration levels being noticeably lower.7 It also takes them longer to recover from a poor night’s sleep too!
- While men don’t go through a rapid decline in hormones the same way women do, many have to contend with the symptoms of an enlarged prostate, which means that their sleep is frequently interrupted during the night by the urge to visit the toilet.
- It’s a sad but true fact that many men are still not as willing to seek help when they suffer from health related problems when compared to women. This can make it difficult to analyse whether or not women truly do suffer from more sleep problems than men as men are more likely to suffer in silence. However, this idea of putting on a ‘brave face’ definitely shouldn’t be encouraged as, the longer your health or sleep related problem persists, the more you are endangering your own wellbeing!
How can women go about improving their sleep patterns?
So far I’ve covered why women may be more predisposed to sleep problems but here I’m going to discuss how you can go about getting a better night’s sleep.
Firstly, since your hormones can play such a huge role in interrupting your sleep patterns, it only makes sense that you address this area first. In her blog, ‘Understanding your periods and hormone imbalance’ our Women’s Health Advisor Emma goes into quite a bit of depth about the different hormone imbalances that can occur during your menstrual cycle so this is definitely worth a read if you find that your period symptoms are preventing you from getting a good quality of sleep.
It would also be impossible to talk about hormones without speaking about menopause. Unfortunately, many women find this to be a difficult and confusing time of life which is why I’d highly recommend taking a look at our Menopause Expert Eileen’s tips and advice over at A.Vogel Talks Menopause. Here, she talks about a wide range of different symptoms and how you can tackle them, going into more detail about supplements and remedies like Menopause Support and our Menoforce Sage tablets which can help ease many of the difficulties associated with menopause.
However, hormones aren’t the only factor you need to consider when thinking about sleep. Diet and lifestyle also play a huge role in influencing your sleep patterns so these areas deserve some attention too. It’s incredibly important that you make sure you’re keeping active and getting regular bouts of exercise, whether it’s a session at the gym or a brisk 20 minute walk. Aim to maintain a healthy, balanced diet that’s full of brightly coloured fruits and veg, healthy fats and lean sources of protein.
Finally, stress can be a huge problem for women so it’s extremely important that you try to tackle this issue. This could mean speaking about your feelings to a friend or loved one or trying to combat the source of your stress head on. I speak more in depth about stress over at A.Vogel Talks Mental Wellbeing but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with occasionally saying NO and setting aside some time for yourself each day to unwind. Mindfulness is one meditative practice that has really taken off in recent years and it can do wonders both for your stress levels and sleep patterns so I would definitely suggest investigating this method too.
Is there a herbal remedy that can help?
If you’re tossing and turning in your bed or find yourself waking up constantly through the night, my number one recommendation would be Dormeasan. This herbal tincture contains a combination of Valerian and Hops which can help to gently relax your nervous system, allowing you to unwind and encouraging you to drift into a deep, natural sleep. It’s also worth noting that Dormeasan isn’t associated with any of the negative side-effects usually ascribed to conventional sleep medicines so it won’t leave you feeling drowsy or sluggish the next day!