Why Are Women Sleep Deprived Compared To Men?
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On the surface, sleep is sleep. And while the need to slumber is universal, experiences may vary. Just as sleep differs throughout different life stages, so too does it differ between men and women.
Not only do sleep requirements and architecture vary between the sexes, but our experiences of sleep deprivation are different, too. While there’s a lot we’re still learning about sleep, one thing is pretty clear: Women and sleep deprivation share a complex relationship.
The Difference Between Men’s And Women’s Sleep
First things first — despite how it might feel if you’re a woman who lies awake at night while your partner snores the night away, women generally sleep deeper than men — when they do sleep, that is.
“Women actually sleep deeper, and need a bit more sleep than men,” says Dr. Shelby Harris, Sleepopolis’ director of sleep health. “Women, while they sometimes have more sleep problems, when they do sleep, they actually are better sleepers than men.”
Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of sleep problems to go around. In a survey of more than 2,000 people conducted by Sleepopolis in 2023, it was evident that despite mostly similar worries keeping them up at night — finances, childcare, the things that happened throughout the day — men and women have different sleep challenges.
For example, men were more likely to consider themselves easy sleepers or to have challenges staying asleep after falling asleep easily, while women were more likely to struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep. Additionally, women were more likely to struggle to fall back asleep after waking during the night than men, who have an easier time falling right back to sleep.
The big question, then, is why? Below, we explore some of the culprits behind women’s more challenging relationship with sleep, as well as the general differences between men and women’s sleep.
Different Circadian Rhythms
One of the primary differences between men and women’s sleep lies in their circadian rhythms. Women’s circadian rhythms are slightly shorter than their male counterparts. As a result, women might prefer to wake earlier in the morning and go to bed earlier at night. So while women may feel more energetic during the day, many find that they prefer to hit the hay earlier as well.
Different Sleep Cycles
Annika Carroll, sleep expert and CEO of Sleep Like a Boss, says that while many women feel like they’re consistently struggling to fall asleep and/or stay asleep, “women are reported to sleep 11 minutes longer than men on average, and they spend more time in deep sleep.”
But while all signs may point to women getting better quality sleep than men, studies show that sleep quality and duration worsen with age — a likely result of dropping estrogen levels and menopause. Moreover, women may have different needs when it comes to sleep.
Of course, that isn’t the last we’ll hear about hormones and sleep for women. Hormones have a big impact on women’s sleep quality and quantity through most of their lives, and can often be the root of sleep challenges.
Why Do Women Have A Hard Time Sleeping?
Across their lifetime, women have to deal with hormonal changes that impact their sleep. Beyond those biological factors, women are more prone to mood disorders and higher rates of stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which keep them up at night.
Starting with puberty, women are privy to a series of hormonal fluctuations that occur month after month, year after year. And while those changes do the important work of managing critical biological functions like preparing the uterus for implantation and expelling that lining when it doesn’t happen, they can wreak a little havoc with a woman’s sleep cycle.
One study showed that women have changes in their sleep architecture — which is the general structure of your sleep cycle — in every phase of their menstrual cycle, with the biggest shakeup occurring in the luteal phase. In this final stage of the menstrual cycle, women often experience increased sleep latency, more night-time wakings, and poorer sleep quality. Harris says some women even experience insomnia in the four to five days leading up to their periods.
It’s worth noting here that most women tend to experience their PMS symptoms during the luteal phase, so it’s not that difficult to connect the dots between the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, impaired sleep, and the need for more.
Pregnancy comes with its own host of challenges, many of which are sleep-related, says Harris.
“During pregnancy, as many of us know, that’s a big time for sleep disruption. There can be hormone issues, having to urinate a lot at night — heartburn is a big one,” she says. “And then as you’re getting bigger the baby starts having to move around a lot more, you’re just uncomfortable. The final thing we see a lot more during that stage is there can be vivid dreaming.” Harris notes that sleep apnea is also very common in pregnant women, though it typically resolves post-pregnancy.
And of course, there are plenty of sleep challenges that come along with motherhood post-birth, too.
Perimenopause And Menopause
No discussion of women and sleep deprivation would be complete without mentioning perimenopause and menopause. In another onslaught of hormonal upheaval in a woman’s life, hot flashes, night sweats, and hormone dips are the reason so many menopausal women are lying awake night after night.
Stress And Mental Health
While the biological factors that keep women up at night may seem like more than enough, we can’t forget the social and emotional factors that stymie their sleep.
Not only do women have higher rates of anxiety and depression than men, but anthropologically speaking, women often bear the brunt of the physical workload and the emotional labor for their families. Very often, mothers are required to put in their full eight hours at the office (wherever that is these days) only to sign off or come home to kids, homework, dinner prep, and a sink full of dishes. Day after day, all of these elements swirl into a perfect storm for women and sleep deprivation.
Overall, women tend to be more prone to sleep disorders than men — for instance, women are twice as likely to have insomnia, the most common sleep disorder. Women are also more prone to restless leg syndrome, nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder, and other disorders.
However, there are some sleep disorders that are more common in men, including sleep apnea, which affects about 30 million people in the United States, though only about 6 million people have been diagnosed.
Women And Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation doesn’t look the same from one day to the next, nor does it look the same from person to person. While short-term sleep deprivation typically results in symptoms like excessive daytime sleepiness, moodiness, and a short fuse, prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to more serious health issues like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
High Cortisol Levels
“Insufficient sleep causes the body to release a lot of cortisol,” says Carroll. “Ultimately, this well-known stress hormone indirectly gives us a boost of energy and impedes the body’s ability to rest and repair itself physically and emotionally.”
Carroll says “sugar cravings, weight gain, brain fog, and memory issues stemming from sleep deprivation” are some of the most common complaints and symptoms she hears about from her clients.
Moodiness And Irritability
Moodiness and irritability are a common side-effect of not getting enough sleep — for both genders. In Sleepopolis’ survey, 61 percent of women said a lack of sleep negatively affected their mood and attitude, along with 53 percent of male respondents.
“The longer we sleep, the more our body regulates our emotions. If we cut sleep short, we will miss out on that rebalancing process.” To paint a clear picture, Carroll urges readers to think of it in terms of toddlers throwing a temper tantrum after a short night’s sleep.
Motherhood And Sleep
Historically, women were often tasked with the brunt of active nocturnal care of infants, and despite all the progress we have made, that’s still very much the case. Anecdotally, we know mothers are still the primary caregivers; this is particularly true for mothers who choose to breastfeed their babies.
While the volatile sleep patterns of new babies often provide endless fodder for “new parent sleep deprivation” jokes, the science behind it is rather startling.
For example, one study showed that 28 to 50 percent of infants at age 6 months and 12 months do not sleep through the night. In the absence of a formed sleep-wake cycle in infants, mothers may not see their full 7 to 9 hours for quite some time.
You may want to hold on to your hat for this one — one study showed that parental satisfaction with sleep does not return to its baseline for mothers until about six years after the birth of their first child. Moreover, the same study showed that mothers were far more sleep deprived than fathers. On average, women lost about one hour of sleep each night, while fathers only lost 13 minutes.
Carroll notes that mothers who try to get by and make due often end up setting off a domino effect that never ends well for their sleep health.
“When mothers drink more caffeine and eat sugary foods the next day to combat fatigue, this often meddles with their sleep, leading to later bedtimes,” she says. “And later bedtimes often lead to more sleep deprivation or a shift in circadian rhythms.”
Beyond the first year, Carroll notes that “moms continue to struggle with their own sleep once their little ones sleep through the night because they’re hard-wired to listen for their child waking up” and any signs and sounds of distress.
Another potential issue for mothers is “momsomnia”, also known as revenge bedtime procrastination. In an attempt to get a little of the “me-time” that life with new babies and small children makes so hard to obtain, women often choose to stay up later (after everyone is quiet and settled). And in most cases, their choice of activity or entertainment is nothing more riveting than doomscrolling or binging watching Netflix’s new hit. While it may seem harmless, the problem lies in the chain reaction that leads to more sleep deprivation.
Sleep Tips For Women
Women may find it harder to get some shut-eye compared with their male counterparts, and their sleep deprivation is real. But the news is not all gloom and doom. Ahead, Annika Carroll offers some tips to help women get back to sleep.
- Take breaks during the day to allow your brain to process experiences and emotions.
- Avoid alcohol before bedtime — drinking a glass of red wine to wind down before bed is not going to bode well for your sleep quality.
- Avoid scrolling on social media before bed (we’re all guilty!) — doing so late at night is not sleep-promoting thanks to the blue light and mental stimulation that comes from doomscrolling.
- Exercise! Get some movement in daily. It can make you tired and help with sleep.
- Declutter your bedroom. You want to look forward to going there; you want to love the place you sleep in. And on that note, consider leaving your phone in the kitchen and investing in an analog alarm clock — trust us, your sleep will benefit!
- Keep your bedroom cold. Lowering the temperature in your bedroom will help with night sweats and hot flashes. Or, consider putting a fan next to your bed to keep the air cool and circulating.
- Wear cotton socks in bed — this may sound funny, but it helps the body with temperature regulation, and it often works.
- Manage noise levels as best you can. If your partner snores, have them checked for sleep conditions such as sleep apnea and think about separate bedrooms — sleep divorce gets a bad rap because of the term, but there’s nothing wrong with prioritizing your sleep.
The Last Word From Sleepopolis
Thanks to fluctuating hormones, stress, depression, and family responsibilities that keep them from getting the quality sleep they need, the deck can feel stacked against women when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep.
Luckily, women can often turn their sleep deprivation around with a few lifestyle changes and tweaks to their sleep hygiene, but they should never hesitate to reach out to a healthcare professional if they find themselves with long-term sleep challenges keeping them from getting the rest they need.