Sleep plays a vital role in maintaining mental, physical, and emotional health. But with lockdowns imposed and offices shut yet again, people continue to work from home, a model that not only blurs the lines between office and home, but also leads to increased exposure to screens. This, coupled with pandemic-induced anxiety, and lack of physical activity not only takes a toll on one’s health, but also contributes to poor sleep quality. But it is women, especially working mothers, who are worst affected — as women need more sleep than men, say experts.

A 2014 study, Exploring Sex and Gender Differences in Sleep Health: A Society for Women’s Health Research Report, published on the National Library of Medicine, found that the optimal sleep hours vary in men and women. It also stated that “women are 40 per cent more prone to insomnia and restless leg syndrome“, and also that men tend to have a deeper sleep than women. 

Dr Sibasish Dey, head of medical affairs, Asia and Latin America, ResMed, concurs with the findings of the study. Below, he elucidates why women need more sleep than men, repercussions of sleep deprivation, and shares tips for women to manage their sleep cycles:

Why do women need more sleep than men?

“Several studies have proven that the sleep requirement may slightly vary between men and women, given their biological structure. A significant factor for this is how both women and men spend their day. Research has documented the differences in the time women and men have dedicated to paid and unpaid labour, work and social responsibilities, and family caregiving,” Dr Dey told indianexpress.com.

He added that women get slightly more sleep than men, approximately 11-13 minutes more, but men tend to have a much deeper sleep. Women are more likely to get up in the middle of the night to take care of others in the family. Sleep works best when it is uninterrupted. 

“Additionally, women are more likely to take a nap during the day, suggesting that their total sleep time may be misleading. Napping during the day adds to the sleep time (number of hours spent sleeping) and makes night-time sleep less restful,” he continued.

Reasons women need more (and better quality) sleep than men:

  • Increased risk of sleep disorders: Women are 40 per cent more prone to insomnia and restless leg syndrome (RLS) which causes an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, usually because of an uncomfortable sensation disrupting sleep, requiring women to sleep a little extra to make up for the lost sleep.
  • Hormonal imbalances: Women undergo multiple hormonal changes throughout their lives. The changes create disturbances in their circadian rhythm, requiring extra sleep. 
  • Mental health: “Women are twice more likely to suffer from depression than men. In India, women tend to face adverse mental health issues due to their professional commitments and added responsibilities of household chores. A good sleep cycle is needed for them to keep their mental health in check,” Dr Dey said.
  • Personal lifestyle and fitness: A good night’s sleep aids a women’s metabolism. It gives more energy to exercise, concentrate, and perform other critical daily tasks. According to researchers at the Loughborough University U.K., women need more sleep than men due to multitasking.

What are the repercussions of sleep deprivation in women?

Women need more sleep than men, if not the same. The consequences of a bad sleep cycle also tend to be much graver in women compared to men. Several studies have extensively shown that sleep-deprived women are at an increased risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart strokes, stress, and mental health issues than sleep-deprived men. Not only that, sleep deprivation can also aggravate pre-existing mood disturbances, such as anger, depression, and anxiety. It can lead to confusion, fatigue, and lack of vigour, ultimately impacting productivity. Women may also face more challenges in concentration than men.

Sleep deprivation may also lead to fatigue and mood swings. This is especially true for women suffering from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), leading to increased hunger, over-eating, decreased insulin sensitivity, and carbohydrate cravings. Long term lack of sleep may directly affect the release of luteinizing hormone, or L.H. that triggers ovulation to regulate the menstrual cycle and affect fertility. Women getting less than seven hours of sleep are 15% less likely to conceive than women who get seven to eight hours of sleep.

How much more sleep do women need compared to men?

While the sleep requirements vary from person to person, as per studies, women need 20 – 30 minutes of extra sleep than men to make up for the lost sleep due to their lifestyle, fitness and health requirements, responsibilities handled and hormonal changes at every stage. 

What about pregnant women?

Troubled sleep schedules are standard during pregnancy. Increased intra-abdominal pressure leading to pressure on the diaphragm, increased urination, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), and restless legs syndrome (RLS) are just a few of the hurdles women experience, especially during the first trimester due to a spike in progesterone. It can become hard to find a comfortable sleeping position by the third trimester. At this stage, high estrogen levels can also cause some women to develop rhinitis (swelling of the nasal tissue), which can be associated with snoring and obstructive sleep apnea.

However, women must try to find ways to sleep well. Research has proven that pregnant women with improper sleep schedules have a greater chance of developing issues such as Preeclampsia, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, more prolonged labour, and higher caesarean rates. This is particularly true among women who get fewer than six hours of sleep over 24 hours. Lack of sleep for pregnant women can also lead to excessive weight gain due to glucose regulation. Additionally, poor sleep may also affect the developing foetus. Insufficient total sleep or fragmentation of deep sleep may reduce the amount of growth hormone released, leading to developmental or growth problems in the unborn baby.

How can women manage their sleep cycles?

Keeping a check on certain habits can manage milder sleep issues:

  • Research has proven that our body takes over four days to recover from 1 hour of sleep loss at night. Start with a consistent sleep-wake cycle and maintain a healthy circadian rhythm. Try to sleep between 10 pm – 7 am, and make sure you get at least seven hours of restful sleep regularly.
  • Avoid naps during the day, and limit your caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine intake. 
  • Avoid heavy meals at night and ensure you take a short walk after dinner. Also, avoid drinking a lot of water right before sleep to don’t have to wake up for frequent urination. 
  • Make your bedroom as calm, dark, and quiet as possible.
  • A hot water shower before bedtime can help you get a peaceful sleep at night. However, avoid boiling water if you are pregnant. 
  • Practice activities that help your mind relax right before sleeping – such as meditation or reading a book. 

However, women experiencing morning headaches, daytime sleepiness, loss of productivity, etc., must consult a sleep specialist or resort to home sleep tests.

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