How Women sleep differently to Men – and why it matters

It has been known for a long time that women take longer to fall asleep and new research from the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) has verified it. As well as being slower to get to sleep, they feel ‘sleepiness’ more than men and have an increased risk of insomnia. On the other hand, when asleep, they spend much longer in deep sleep.

Insomnia

Much of the understanding of why sex differences in sleep exist and also how these differences may affect treatment lag far behind any other areas of knowledge with regards to sleep and sleep disorders. Much of what we have in medical literature focuses only on snoring and sleep apnoea, long regarded solely as a male problem – but certainly not true.

Hoping to correct this lack of information, some of the leading names in women’s sleep research were brought together by SWHR to gather information on the the matter, including sleep experts from both Harvard and Stanford Universities. They found that hormonal shift seems to play a big role; and these times for a woman are when she appears most vulnerable to insomnia, both monthly, and also around the menopause. Restless legs syndrome is also much more common in pregnant women than in men, children, or women who have not had children, but the exact hormonal connection however is yet to be established.

Women are bringing sleep-related concerns to their doctors, but the statistics aren’t pointing to the real problems that exist. Sleep apnoea is a prime example of this.

Men with the condition are likely to report snoring, snorting, or waking up and gasping for breath. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to report fatigue, depression and un-refreshing sleep.

All this underlines that much more detailed research is required into women’s sleep disorders as well as the current work that mostly deals with men. Sleep apnoea of course is far from exclusive to men, and the number of women sufferers is growing – but is this through an increase in the number of sufferers or improved diagnosis?

Further to this in the UK, Sleep specialist Dr Neil Stanley of the University of Surrey told the British Science Festival how bed-sharing causes rows over snoring and duvet hogging, and this often robs women of precious sleep. One study found that, on average, couples suffered 50% more sleep disturbances if they shared a bed.

Dr Stanley points out that historically we were never meant to share our beds. He said the modern tradition of the marital bed only began with the industrial revolution, when people moving to overcrowded towns and cities found themselves short of living space. Before the Victorian era it was not uncommon for married couples to sleep apart, and in ancient Rome, the marital bed was a place for sexual congress but not for sleeping.

He said poor sleep was linked to depression, heart disease, strokes, lung disorders, traffic and industrial accidents, and divorce, yet sleep was largely ignored as an aspect of health.  Dr Robert Meadows, a sociologist at the University of Surrey, said: “People actually feel that they sleep better when they are with a partner but the evidence suggests otherwise.”

In his study he found that when couples share a bed and one of them moves in his or her sleep, there is a 50% chance that their slumbering partner, more often the woman, will be disturbed as a result. Despite this, couples are reluctant to sleep apart, with only 8% of those in their 40s and 50s sleeping in separate rooms, the British Science Festival heard.

By John Redfern