He Slept, She Slept: Sex Differences in Sleep
How sleep differs between men and women.
Better Sleep, Better Health
Each night, people commonly pass through several stages of sleep, during which the brain undergoes repairs and restoration. The bulk of those repairs, which include the promotion of cell growth and fixing cells damaged due to stress, occurs during deep sleep, which also may promote emotional well-being.
For people with sleep disorders, entering and maintaining deep sleep -- if they can sleep at all -- is a challenge.
Woman or man, getting an insufficient amount of sleep on a regular basis increases the risk of additional health problems, such as diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease,and other conditions. Such risks are higher in men than in women, and they are more likely to strike men at an earlier age. Why? Again, we don’t know, though Twery speculates that hormonal differences may protect women until they are older.
If hormones do play a protective role, they have also been implicated in sleep problems.
“Growth and stress hormones disturb our patterns of sleep,” says Twery, “but how they affect men and women differently has not been studied.”
Whatever the gender differences may be, says Twery, they appear to play less of a role in sleep as men and women age. For example, postmenopausal women and men of the same age have the same rate of obstructive sleep apnea.
Sharing Sleep -- and Sleep Problems
One thing we do know is that, for couples who share a bed, one partner’s sleeping problem can easily become a problem for both.
“I see couples very often,” says Renee Garfinkel, PhD, a Washington, D.C. psychologist who specializes in treating sleep disorders. “I encourage partners to come in.”
“Even when one partner is not sleep disturbed, that can be a problem,” she says. “When the one who cannot sleep looks at his or her significant other, there’s often resentment or jealousy, as well as feelings of loneliness.”
In many cases, resolving the sleep issues -- which Garfinkel is often able to accomplish in six to 12 sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy -- allows the couple to explore other issues that may have contributed to the poor sleep in the first place, such as depression or marital difficulties.
“Resolving insomnia allows other things to be addressed calmly,” says Garfinkel.
Despite all that’s unknown, there is at least one clear gender difference: When a sleep problem is disturbing a couple, it’s the woman who makes the appointment with the physician or therapist. That is no surprise. Men are notoriously reluctant to see a doctor for any reason. In Garfinkel’s practice, men often come in only at their partner’s insistence.
“Women are much more willing to seek help, to ask directions,” Garfinkel says.
Anna, who has had trouble sleeping since she was a child, says that the sleep problems she and her husband have became much more urgent matters once they had children.
“Before the kids, I could make up for lost sleep by taking naps, but you just can’t do that with a full time job and little kids running around,” she says. “When our first child was born, we were both saying this is so much harder because we are not great sleepers to begin with.”
Nowadays, she wears a sleep mask and takes a sleep aid, the antidepressant trazodone, which is often prescribed for insomnia.
“I don’t get sick like I used to now that I am sleeping better,” she says.
“I feel like I’ve struggled with sleep for my entire life,” Anna says. “If you don’t figure out what the problem is, it just becomes what your body does.”