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Men, Women, and Their Differing Sleep Needs

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Sleep—nobody gets enough of it. But while both men and women suffer from lack of sleep, they differ in what prevents them from getting sound rest. When we lay our heads on our his-and-hers pillows at night, social and biological factors come into play that keep a woman awake all night with a baby while her husband sleeps like one.


Estrogen: The Insomnia Hormone
In a spring 2008 Ms. magazine article, “Why We Can’t Sleep,” Gayle Greene wrote that 67 percent of women experience frequent sleep problems, though three-quarters of all sleep research has focused on men. According to Greene, who is also the author of the book Insomniac, women’s sleep troubles begin once they hit puberty, at which point they become two and a half times more likely to have insomnia than men are.


The hormonal fluctuations that happen throughout a woman’s life cycle following menarche can disrupt sleep for several reasons: They can cause depression and anxiety, which alter sleep patterns. They can contribute to weight gain, which in turn may lead to sleep apnea—a breathing disorder that interrupts sleep. But the most common way for estrogen and progesterone fluctuations to cause sleep disturbance is by raising body temperature.


Women who take birth control pills, women with premenstrual syndrome, and menopausal women with hot flashes have elevated body temperatures at night. Our bodies naturally cool down as we fall asleep, so anything that keeps us warm also keeps us awake.


If you’re sweating instead of sleeping, consider taking a hot bath or exercising an hour and a half before bedtime. It may be the last thing you’d think of to cool down, but it works. Your body temperature rises with the bath or physical exertion and then starts to decline, signaling to your body that it’s time for sleep.


Sleep Like a Baby, Unless One Is Crying
We’ve all heard tales about women’s exhibiting superhuman abilities to lift cars when it comes to saving their children, but does maternity also bring on extraordinary hearing? There’s no evidence to prove that this is the case, but there is research that shows women are programmed to pay attention to different sounds than men are.


While researching a new cold-and-flu product, British neuromarketing research firm MindLab, which studies consumers’ brain responses to advertising, found that specific sounds disrupt men’s and women’s sleep in different ways. MindLab played a variety of sounds for sleeping volunteers and measured the results on an electroencephalography (EEG) machine to observe and record how the noises affected volunteers’ normal brain activity during sleep.


According to the study, women are most likely to be woken up by sleeping babies and dripping taps, whereas car alarms and howling winds are what rouse men most readily. Though the MindLab researchers did not speculate about the possible reasons for their findings, it’s interesting that these results seem to correspond to traditional gender roles. Woman is in the kitchen, worrying about her drippy faucet and her screaming baby, while man is guarding the nest against potential danger. Our social conditioning—or biological predisposition, depending on whom you ask—follows us to bed, and there’s nothing we can do about it except wear earplugs.


Let Sleeping Men Lie (Alone)
Women seem to have more trouble sleeping overall than do men, but they’re better at sharing their beds for sleep. According to Gerhard Kloesch and his colleagues at the University of Vienna, men who sleep with a mate suffer from disturbed sleep, elevated stress hormones, and a foggy brain during the day. But women may actually sleep more deeply with a partner.


Kloesch’s team studied eight unmarried, childless couples in their twenties and asked them to spend ten nights sleeping together and ten apart. During that time, they answered questionnaires about their sleep and wore wrist-activity monitors. They also performed simple cognitive tests and had their levels of the stress hormone cortisol checked every day.


The men’s cortisol levels were higher, and they fared worse in the cognitive tests after sharing a bed than they did after sleeping alone. Both sexes had trouble falling asleep together, but women slept more deeply with a partner present once they did fall asleep, and their stress levels and cognitive scores didn’t change as drastically as the men’s did. Ironically, the men reported sleeping better with a partner, while the women said they slept better alone.


If you or your partner suffers from insomnia, University of Surrey, England, sleep expert Dr. Neil Stanley recommends sleeping separately, at least for a while. The double bed has evolved into the symbol of intimacy in a relationship; if we hear of a couple with separate bedrooms, we assume they’re estranged. Just remember that sleep is essential to good health, so if the only way you can get your eight-hour dose is by snoozing solo, don’t worry about the cultural weight attached to the situation. In fact, your physical and emotional intimacy with your partner might even thrive when you’re not forced to kick each other all night and wake up tired and cranky in the morning.


“Historically, we have never been meant to sleep in the same bed as each other,” says Stanley. “It is a bizarre thing to do. If you are happy sleeping together, that’s great, but if not, there is no shame in separate beds.”


The Birds, the Bees, and the Zs
We all have trouble sleeping. We just differ in terms of what kind of trouble it is, depending on whether we’re male or female. For many of these sex-specific sleep problems, like raised body temperature, sensitivity to noise, and difficulty sharing a bed, there are simple, straightforward solutions. For others, like hormone-related mood disorders and menopause, you may need to seek help from your gynecologist or a sleep specialist.

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