Anna and her husband go to bed at the same time. That’s the only part of their sleep routine that they have in common.
"We have very distinct sleep patterns and sleep issues," says Anna, 42, who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy. “My husband tends to fall asleep easily but he wakes up incredibly early. I have trouble falling asleep."
The couple, who teach at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, have learned various coping strategies so that they can both get enough sleep. Before they go to bed, for example, Anna’s husband sets out next day’s clothes downstairs. That way, when he gets up at 5 a.m., he can dress without waking Anna, who not only has trouble falling asleep but also finds it nearly impossible to get back to sleep once she has awaken.
What no one has yet learned, however, is precisely how and why women and men differ in the ways that they sleep -- or don’t sleep. Right now, we don’t even know whether men need more sleep than women, or vice versa.
“There’s no nationally representative data [on gender differences],” says Michael Twery, PhD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
Twery says that national health surveillance surveys have recently started to ask questions related to sleep. Such surveys will eventually help researchers break down responses along gender lines, potentially providing more insight into how men and women sleep -- and sleep differently.
Still, there are a few things that we do know now. According to Twery, women suffer from insomnia at two to three times the rate that men do. Men, on the other hand, are twice as likely to have their slumber spoiled by sleep apnea, a chronic condition characterized by brief episodes of restricted breathing.
But, Twery points out, the gap in those rates could partly be due to doctors who don't fully understand the disorder. Women, he says, may experience symptoms of sleep apnea differently than men, and they don’t describe their symptoms in the same terms as men.