Obvious gender divides remain in many aspects of modern life. But now evidence is emerging of how men and women differ in one perhaps unexpected area — sleep.
A Royal Society of Medicine conference today will reveal how women sleep more than men, tend to be better in the morning, but are more likely to suffer the consequences of poor sleep.
Meanwhile, men get less restorative, deep sleep than women, are more likely to be night owls and are at greater risk of some sleep disorders.
A Royal Society of Medicine conference today will reveal how women sleep more than men, tend to be better in the morning, but are more likely to suffer the consequences of poor sleep
‘While the basic principles of sleep are the same in men and women — we all sleep in about 90-minute cycles, deeply in the first part of the night and recover from sleep loss by having more deep sleep — there is growing evidence of subtle differences between men and women,’ Dr Helen Driver, a sleep specialist at Kingston General Hospital and Queen’s University in Canada, will tell the meeting in London.
‘Understanding the differences in the way men and women sleep is an emerging area of medicine,’ says Dr Driver. ‘As we understand it better, it could lead to tailored treatments to help ensure that, whatever your gender, you can get a good night’s sleep.’
Here, we reveal the differences between the sexes when it comes to sleep, and the impact on our health.
MEN GET LESS RESTORATIVE SLEEP
Deep sleep is when the body repairs itself. This is known as non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep.
About 80 per cent of adults’ sleep is non-REM sleep, although only 20 per cent of this is deep sleep (the other type is known as rapid eye movement sleep and it is when vivid dreams occur).
During the deepest stage of deep sleep, the brainwaves are much slower and this is when growth hormone is released. The body uses this to repair and regrow tissues, build bones and muscle, and strengthen the immune system.
‘This deep sleep declines with age, but it decreases earlier in men — starting in their 20s and 30s —while it is a decade later in women,’ explains Dr Driver.
‘It is unclear why, but one theory is that growth hormone production decreases earlier in men. This means women tend to get more of this “quality” sleep.’
So could a lack of restorative, deep sleep mean that men age faster — and even help explain why women live longer than men (in the UK, average life expectancy for women is 82.9 compared to 79.2 for men)?
Who comes out best? WOMEN
WOMEN MORE AT RISK OF INSOMNIA
Yet, paradoxically, women are 50 per cent more likely than men to experience insomnia.
Women are also more likely to ‘ruminate and worry’ — and this racing mind can also contribute to insomnia, says Dr Driver.
It can also be triggered by biological differences, such as during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause. Essentially, women’s hormones conspire to undermine their sleep patterns.
Did you know? A lack of restorative sleep could mean that men age faster — and even help explain why women live longer than men
‘Period pain can cause women to have disturbed sleep, and fluctuating hormone levels across the menstrual cycle cause subtle changes in sleep,’ says Dr Driver.
‘Pregnant women’s sleep can be disturbed by restless leg syndrome, needing to go to the loo more frequently and difficulty getting comfortable.’
Restless leg syndrome is twice as common in women. Linked to iron deficiency, it affects around one in five pregnant women, and is more common in the last three months of pregnancy when an iron imbalance may occur.
It creates a creepy-crawly feeling in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them, which can keep sufferers awake at night.
‘It’s a condition that gets worse in the afternoon and evenings and better in the mornings,’ explains Dr Sofia Eriksson, a consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, who will also address today’s conference.
Another common symptom of restless sleep is periodic limb movements — uncontrollable jerking or twitching of the ankle, knee and hip joints — while you are asleep, which can wake you up, says Dr Eriksson.
Up to 80 per cent of people with restless leg syndrome get these movements that usually occur every 20 to 40 seconds, making it hard to get a good night’s kip.
Meanwhile, during the menopause, women’s sleep can be disturbed by hot flushes which can wake them as their body temperature rises.
‘Up to half of women during the menopause report sleep problems,’ says Dr Driver.
Who comes out best? MEN
WHY MEN ARE THE BIGGER SNORERS
The female hormone progesterone can help with sleep and protect women from some sleep and breathing disorders.
After ovulation and before menstruation, a woman’s levels of the hormone progesterone rise. It interacts with receptors in the brain that respond to GABA, an amino acid that helps the body relax. The effect is to act as a bit of a sedative, helping women to sleep, says Dr Driver.
Changes: Meanwhile, during the menopause, women’s sleep can be disturbed by hot flushes which can wake them as their body temperature rises
‘It also has a protective effect on respiration, helping with breathing,’ she adds. This means that, before the menopause, women are less likely to suffer from sleep apnoea (where the walls of the airway narrow, causing pauses in breathing) than men. The brain prompts the body to breathe again and a rush of air through the collapsed tissues causes snoring.
‘Even if women suffer from sleep apnoea, the airway tends to narrow rather than close,’ says Dr Driver. ‘However, this tends to mean they have a longer time with a narrowed airway during deep sleep and wake as a result.’
However, a new survey of sleep disorders conducted by the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital recently found that the number of young women snoring outstripped men.
Experts say the rise could be down to a number of factors — from rising obesity levels and increased alcohol consumption among women to vaping.
Who comes out best? Women
WOMEN WORSE OF AFTER POOR REST
There is growing evidence that women may be more susceptible than men to the impact of sleep debt, including high blood pressure and cardiovascular problems.
A study last year by New York’s Columbia University, which looked at the link between blood pressure and sleep, found those who took a long time to fall asleep and had poor sleep quality were more likely to have the condition.
The same effects were seen even if women managed to still get the total recommended seven to nine hours of sleep. Researchers believe even mild sleep problems might trigger an inflammation of the blood vessels that can contribute to cardiovascular disease.
According to a 2008 U.S. study by Duke University, poor sleep has more serious health consequences for women, because it is likely to cause greater psychological distress and higher levels of biomarkers associated with elevated risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Women who reported taking half an hour or more to fall asleep were at greatest risk.
Who comes out best? MEN
MEN KIP FOR 20 MINUTES LESS
Patterns: Numerous studies have shown women are more likely to be early birds, while men tend to be night owls. Women also go to bed earlier and sleep slightly longer
Numerous studies have shown women are more likely to be early birds, while men tend to be night owls. Women also go to bed earlier and sleep slightly longer.
This may be because women have a slightly shorter circadian rhythm — the 24-hour body clock that governs when we sleep, rise, and eat, as well as our hormones — which may encourage them to go to bed earlier.
In a pivotal study in 2016, sleep expert Professor Jim Horne, from Loughborough University, found that women get 20 more minutes’ sleep than the average man. He says this is down to women’s busy, multi-tasking brains.
The theory is the more of your brain you use during the day, the more sleep it needs to recover. By doing many things at once, women use more of their brain than men.
Men who have complex jobs that involve lots of decision-making and lateral thinking are also likely to need more sleep than the average male, he says.
‘Multi-tasking might be a good thing, says Professor Horne. ‘The more you use your brain, the more deep sleep you will have.
‘We know that women’s brains age more slowly than men’s; a woman’s brain at 75 is the same as a man’s at 70. However, we don’t yet know what role sleep plays in the ageing of the brain.’
The theory is controversial and Dr Driver stresses some studies have shown no difference in how long men and women sleep.
Who comes out best? DRAW
WILL HANDS-ON DADS SLEEP MORE LIKE WOMEN?
But it’s not all biology. Women’s evolutionary role looking after the children may also play a part.
‘Historically, women have had more “on-call” sleep — sleep that is regularly disrupted as they get up to look after children,’ says Dr Driver. ‘This can cause hyperarousal — when the body kicks into a state of high alert — causing the mind to race and insomnia.
‘Childcare responsibilities are increasingly being shared between both sexes. It will be interesting to see whether this alters sleeping patterns. Will our bodies adapt to social changes?’ asks Dr Driver.
Who comes out best? DRAW