Do women need more sleep than men?

Posted on 8 August 2018

Do those of us with XX chromosomes need more ZZs than our XY counterparts?

Sleep is essential to wellbeing. Depending on age or life stage, most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night to feel fully rested – and thanks to the differences in women’s and men’s biological makeup, there are certain times when women do need more sleep than men. But for many women, the demands of coupledom and parenting, along with a job and social responsibilities, mean that getting things done outweighs the time needed to sleep.

Why? Wiring and hormones

Jim Horne, a professor emeritus of psychophysiology at Loughborough University in the UK and the author of several books on sleep, conducted a study on the difference between how much sleep men and women need. He found that, basically, the more you use your brain, the more sleep it needs to recover.

Another researcher, Carmel Harrington of the Australian sleep clinic, Sleep for Health, and author of several books on the subject, notes that rising levels of the hormone progesterone in the last two weeks of women’s monthly cycles have a soporific effect, and that means women require more sleep (about 30 minutes to an hour longer) at that time.

“As we get closer to the end of our cycle, a lot of us suffer from PMT (premenstrual tension), feeling irritable, grumpy or emotional – and those are also the hallmarks of sleep deprivation,” she says.

For overweight women, not getting enough sleep may lead to a vicious cycle: heavy women are more likely to be sleep deprived, the stress hormone cortisol is released in higher quantities in people who don’t sleep enough, and more cortisol leads to a bigger appetite.

What? Sleep cycles

The two basic types of sleep are REM (rapid eye movement) and the deeper NREM (non-REM). These alternate through the night. NREM sleep, which tends to dominate at first, weeds out and removes unnecessary neural connections, and the later REM sleep strengthens the remaining connections. During the deep stages of NREM sleep, the body repairs and regrows tissue, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. You can have intense dreams during REM sleep since your brain is more active. A good night’s sleep has five NREM-REM cycles.

When? The second half of your cycle

If you’re battling with sleep issues, note that you need more sleep during the second half of your menstrual cycle – that is, the two weeks before your period starts. And, irksomely, this may be harder to achieve, as at this time of the month some women either produce less of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin or simply become less sensitive to it.

How? Prepare for sleep

If you aren’t one of those lucky individuals who drift off as soon as their heads hit the pillows, here are a few tips for a good night’s sleep.

  • Switch off all electronic devices and dim the lights a couple of hours before bedtime.
  • Have a warm shower.
  • Do some relaxation exercises.
  • Have a good-quality mattress and cool bedding.

Published in Endocrinology

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