It’s been said that sleep is a feminist issue.
‘There is a sleep gap,’ explains Lisa Sanfilippo, a psychotherapist, sleep expert and author of Yoga Therapy for Insomnia and Sleep Recovery. ‘Just like there’s a pay gap between men and women, there’s a sleep gap, and part of it is gendered.’
The rationale behind this is that because a lack of sleep affects judgement, creativity and the ability to realise one’s full potential, women (who are 40% more likely to suffer from insomnia during their lives than men) are at a biological disadvantage.
Whether you subscribe to the feminist viewpoint or not, there are certainly differences in the amount — and quality — of sleep that men and women need and can expect.
1. The heaven and havoc of hormones
Both men and women have a pineal gland in the centre of the brain which pumps out melatonin, the sleep-inducing, anti-inflammatory hormone that is produced naturally when darkness falls.
But there are other hormones more challenging to a good night’s sleep — and your biology determines how many you have to contend with.
For those experiencing the menstrual cycle, a drop in the levels of oestrogen and progesterone before a period, plus a slight increase in core body temperature, can send sleep patterns awry.
Pregnancy is another time of hormonal upheaval and the resulting sleeplessness is often exacerbated by the baby moving in the womb at night or the mother being obliged to sleep in a particular position in order to feel comfortable. According to the Scientific World Journal, nearly 50% of pregnant women experience sleeping problems.
And then there’s the menopause, which fundamentally changes the production of hormones in a woman’s body, although the shift actually begins a few years earlier during the perimenopause. The body’s natural sleep-wake cycle is affected, and this is compounded by the hot flushes and night sweats which affect up to 85% of women.
However, men aren’t totally immune to hormonal havoc. Some studies suggest that the lower the testosterone (which decreases with age) the worse the sleep — and the worse the sleep, the less testosterone is produced. According to Michael J Breus, The Sleep Doctor and Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, one study found that after 8 eight days of 5.5 hours of sleep or less each night, participants showed a 10-15% decrease in testosterone production.
Add obesity into the hormonal mix and it’s likely there’ll be even more disturbed nights.
(And, as a side note, low levels of testosterone, which dip during the perimenopause, affect women too and creates the same nocturnal unrest, along with daytime sluggishness and fatigue.)
2. The ticking of the body clock
The sleep-wake cycle is one of the body’s natural circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycles that are part of our internal body clock. According to a study by Canada’s McGill University, women naturally fall asleep and wake-up earlier than men and their tiredness sets in earlier in the evening.
‘This essentially means women are beginning their sleep at a later time than men, relative to how their bodies are set,’ explains Forbes. And ‘the reason is simple,’ says study author Diane B. Boivin. ‘Their body clock is shifted to a more easterly time zone.’
The study also found that women’s internal sleep cues weren't as strong in the early hours of the morning as men's, meaning they’re more likely to wake up during the night.
The Sleep Doctor has something to add on this subject too. He notes that circadian cycles are shorter for women than men by six minutes.
‘Even a slight difference can have significant impact on nightly sleep and on energy levels during the day. Think about a clock that runs a handful of minutes behind every day. Over time, those minutes really add up!’
3. Are you a multi-tasker?
If so, you’ll need more sleep, says Professor Jim Horne, Director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University in the UK and author of Sleepfaring: A Journey Through the Science of Sleep.
‘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,’ he explains.
It stands to reason that the harder the brain works during the day, the more repair time is required. And it’s women who do the majority of the multi-tasking.
‘They do lots at once and are flexible,’ says Horne, ‘and so they use more of their actual brain than men do. Because of that, their sleep need is greater.
‘A man who has a complex job that involves a lot of decision-making and lateral thinking may also need more sleep than the average male — though probably still not as much as a woman.’
4. The life we lead
The work we do, the schedules we keep and the stress we experience in our daily lives all play a part in how well (or not) we sleep.
Depression, suffered by 264 million people around the world according to the World Health Organisation, is also a significant contributory factor to sleepless nights — for both men and women, although it’s more likely to be officially diagnosed in the latter.
However, on top of this, women are also still doing the majority of the caregiving — a role known to cause more sleep interruptions and heightened overall stress, which leads to disturbed nights.
And anecdotally, according to Tiina Hoffman, an exercise physiologist at Firstbeat, the performance analytics company, ‘although it seems old fashioned, many women also tell us they’re busy with chores and childcare in the hours before bedtime, which leaves their minds in a more active state.’
This challenge for women is compounded by the fact that they’re less likely than men to sleep well in the first place. Although they sleep for longer, says Hoffman, ‘the percentage of recovery from the day before is lower.’
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has also noted that women's sleep tends to be lighter and they have more sensitivity to noise — a biological setting, perhaps, that makes us better able to respond to the needs of a child in the night.
For men, it’s general health and lifestyle that takes its toll. According to the Sleep Foundation, men have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and chronic lung problems, both of which have a negative impact on sleep architecture.
5. Gendered sleep disorders
There’s a long list of medical conditions that can impair a good night’s sleep — and some of the most common are gendered.
Women are 40% more likely to suffer from insomnia than men over the course of their lives — and have multiple symptoms rather than just one. However, sleep apnoea, a dangerous condition which causes the breathing to stop, is predominantly a male complaint. As is the disturbed sleep that often accompanies urological problems such as erectile dysfunction.
Restless leg syndrome, or Willis-Ekbom disease, is an overwhelming urge to move the legs and experienced more often by women. The same applies to nocturia, the need to urinate frequently during the night, which affects more than 75% of women over 40, according to Sleep Foundation data.
And it’s not limited to night-time.
‘We found that females were more likely to have sleeping disorders associated with daytime sleepiness,’ said Dr John Malouf, founder of the SleepGP sleep clinic in Australia. ‘Females were also likely to feel more affected by the burden of their symptoms.’
And then there’s snoring…
Snoring affects around four in 10 people — and snorers are more likely to be male. However, as we age, the likelihood of snoring increases for everyone.
Losing weight, cutting down on cigarettes and alcohol, and lying on your side rather than your back can all be effective remedies. Nasal dilator strips work for some people too and medical support can be effective if snoring isn’t banished through self-help.
Although it can be a sign of sleep apnoea, snoring is usually a bigger problem for the partners of snorers. Noise-cancelling ear plugs may be your best option. Or separate rooms. Going to bed before your partner can also help. Or poking them in the ribs to make them turn over. It’s an imprecise science.
If all else fails, SnoreLab, the sleep analysis app, suggests taking a mindful approach…
‘Try to emotionally detach from the snoring sound and instead treat it like your own personal soundscape.’
Apparently, by objectively listening to the sound of your partner’s snoring and accepting it, you can enjoy a peaceful night.