If you’ve ever spent one too many nights tossing and turning, you’re not alone. According to Harvard Medical School, 60 percent of women don’t sleep enough. And what’s the only thing worse than staring at the clock all night? Staring at the clock while your restful partner snores next to you. Men have an easier time both falling and staying asleep for a variety of reasons.
Sleep researcher and Canadian Sleep Society president Helen Driver discussed the differences with Best Health. “Women may need a little more sleep than men do,” she explained. “And we also experience more sleep problems, such as insomnia.” Due to hormones to using our brains differently, women have a harder time unwinding at night. We’ve rounded up the main culprits for our sleep deprivation, as well as what to do about it.
Blame it on the hormones
Unlike men, women’s reproductive systems go through major changes throughout adulthood, and those changes can affect sleep. Helen Driver shared that women’s sleep usually changes during their menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause. “Women are more prone to having poor sleep around menstruation,” explained Driver. “And that’s related to pain and mood changes.” During your menstrual cycle, it’s especially important to be kind to yourself. Make sure to go to bed and wake at the same times everyday. Eating healthy foods and moving your body will also help with sleep.
When you are pregnant, it’s not just the hormones keeping you up. From needing to run to the bathroom all night to trying to get comfortable, there are plenty of reasons why you can’t sleep. Studies show that during pregnancy, a woman cannot reach deep sleep as much as she used to. In menopause, women lie awake because of hot flashes and even menopause-induced insomnia. As women age, we are less likely to be able to reach that deep, restorative sleep. To sum it up, we can never get a break.
Worry less, sleep more
Another reason why women take longer to fall asleep might be emotions. Research shows that women are more emotionally sensitive, and those emotions could be keeping us up at night. Emotionally sensitive does not mean dramatic or weak. It simply means that women are better able to tune into their emotions, and that can make it hard to shut our brains off at night.
“Some [experts] suggest that women are more in tune with how they’re feeling and are more sensitive to problems with their sleep,” shares Driver. “A theory we have is that women tend to ruminate about things a little bit more than men do. Women worry and think about what’s happened during the day, and they’re not able to let things go.” That means that if your partner and you both had bad days at work, he can still easily drift off to dreamland while you are still trying to figure out what you could have done differently and what tomorrow will be like.
Women use their brains more
Oh, we just love this study. Researchers at Duke University studied the differences in men and women’s sleep and came to the conclusion that women require more sleep than men because they simply use their brains more.
Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in England, had similar findings. “One of the major functions of sleep is to allow the brain to recover and repair itself. During deep sleep, the cortex — the part of the brain responsible for thought, memory, language and so on — disengages from the senses and goes into recovery mode,” Horne explained to The Australian. “The more of your brain you use during the day, the more of it that needs to recover and, consequently, the more sleep you need. Women tend to multi-task — they do lots at once and are flexible — and so they use more of their actual brain than men do.”
These findings support Helen Driver’s research that women tend to ruminate more at night and have trouble shutting down their brains. Being the smarter s*x is both a blessing and a curse.
Watching the alarm clock
Women are more likely to experience insomnia throughout their lives than men. This can be related to the hormonal changes we experience, as well as other factors. According to a National Sleep Foundation poll, 74 percent of stay-at-home moms experience some symptoms of insomnia.
The problem is that we don’t even really know why women’s sleep is so different, because there is insufficient research. Most sleep research in the past has focused on men. The Society for Women’s Health Research director Monica Mallampalli, Ph.D., MSc says that when we look at the research on women’s sleep, “there’s no momentum there.”
It should be the other way around
While studies and couples agree that women usually take longer to fall asleep than men, our biology says otherwise. A 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that women are hardwired to fall asleep earlier and wake earlier than men. Melatonin, a hormone that induces sleepiness and tells our bodies it’s time to rest, hits women earlier in the evening than it does men. At first glance, this should mean that women can fall asleep quickly, but we know that’s not the case.
Interestingly, this study also found that this period of tiredness when the melatonin is setting in, also known as the intrinsic circadian period, is significantly shorter in women than it is in men. That means that women have a shorter window to be able to fall asleep quickly. Think about your average evening. Have you ever found yourself exhausted on the couch at 8 p.m., only to stay awake and end up feeling wired at 11 p.m.? You most likely missed your window for easy sleep, and now your body has to wind down on its own.
Women can hack it
Okay, ladies, we have some groundbreaking research to share with you. Women cope better with sleep deprivation than men do. Oh, you already knew that? As any new mother can attest, a woman can still get up and function after a night of no sleep. Men, on the other hand, have a harder time. Researchers at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that women reported less sleepiness and performed assigned tasks better than men when sleep-deprived. And while neither men nor women can truly “catch up” on missed sleep, sleep-deprived women will feel better after a longer night of sleep than men will.
While this finding does not help explain why women take longer to fall asleep, it shows just how different men and women are when it comes to sleep. Perhaps we don’t fall asleep as fast because our bodies know that come morning, we’re going to suck it up whether or not we got that restorative sleep.
The dangers of missed sleep
Sure, women can function on no sleep. We understand that going without sleep is part of life. We put on our big girl panties and get to work, but here’s the problem with that attitude. It’s bad for our health. It’s actually ironic that women have more sleep issues than men, because we’re the ones whose health is really affected by lack of sleep.
A 2007 study in Sleep studied the health effects of poor sleep on 3,508 men and 3,388 women. Researchers found an association between shorter sleep duration and an increased risk for heart attacks in middle-aged women. They did not see this same association in men. Women who report not getting enough sleep and waking often throughout the night are at higher risk for heart disease. This finding is scary, because so many of us experience disturbed sleep for years or even decades.
Insufficient sleep can also lead to accelerated skin aging, blood clots, stroke, and psychiatric problems in women. Sleep expert Michael Breus told The Australian that women’s moods are severely affected by lack of sleep. “We found that women had more depression, women had more anger, and women had more hostility early in the morning” after a night without enough sleep, he said. Sleep is clearly crucial for us women, so it is time to make it a true priority.
Get some Z’s
Most adults don’t get enough sleep, but for women it’s more than just an annoyance. Feeling tired does a lot more than just make you pass out on the couch while you’re trying to catch up on Gilmore Girls. Because it takes a toll on our heart health, we can’t mess around with sleep deprivation. So what exactly can we do to improve our sleep?
First, we all need to exercise every day. Physical activity will help you fall asleep faster and get deeper sleep each night. Make sure you’re not exercising right before bed because that could actually energize you and make it harder to fall asleep.
Next, commit to sticking to a regular bedtime routine. Aim to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, even on weekends. Your goal should be to sleep for seven to nine hours, but if you’re nowhere near that, at least try to increase your sleeping time.
Finally, your bedroom should be a sacred place. No work or screens allowed. Keep your bedroom dark and cooler to help with sleep. Reserve your bed for sleep and intimacy only. If you are used to working from bed, how can your brain know that it’s time to wind down when you crawl back in at night?
Ask for help
There are some times in our lives when sleep is just impossible. One of those times is when there is a newborn in the house. Unsurprisingly, research shows that your sleep time will decrease when there are children in the home. The issue is that traditionally it is the mother getting up all night with the baby or children.
Make sure to ask your partner for help so that you are not burning out on sleep deprivation. If you must wake throughout the night to feed the baby, try pumping before you go to bed so your partner can feed the baby while you catch a few more winks.
If your sleep keeps getting worse, despite making these positive changes, check in with your doctor.