The British Snoring & Sleep Apnea Association estimates that between 24-50% of men snore, and many women swear that it is the men in their life that keep them awake through the night!
A survey last year found that 65% of women aged 55-64 experience sleeplessness as a symptom of menopause. In the mid-menopause years this increases to 85%. Anxiety and regular insomnia may be synonymous with hormonal changes in our 50s, but that doesn’t explain nocturnal struggles in younger women. In the same survey, 52% of women aged 35-44 reported similar troubles.
Most experts believe there are a several specific reasons why women find it harder than men to sleep:
Different levels of estrogen and progesterone fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle affecting our ability to fall or stay asleep. Those hormones also produce other side effects, including bloating, cramping and breast tenderness. Throw in mood swings and anxiety, and that’s not a good recipe for restorative sleep.
Exhaustion and physical discomfort can really impact sleep in pregnancy. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) and Restless-leg syndrome can also cause disruption and unrest at night for pregnant women.
Physical symptoms such as night sweats and hot flashes can make for uncomfortable sleep, that along with issues of OSA significantly increase as women go through menopause.
Concern, worry, stress and hypervigilance over not sleeping can perpetuate it and it’s not always easy to change this line of thinking and so the cycle continues.
When a partner has habits that disrupt your sleep, like snoring, twitching, or sleepwalking, your sleep quality can plummet. Different bedtimes and wake-up times can easily be fixed but annoying habits can cause not only insomnia but also resentment – especially when your partner is sleeping soundly whilst you lay beside them wide awake!
Poor sleep hygiene
A poor bedtime routine can often be the root of the problem. Consistent bedtime and wake times can really help with sleep patterns.
Although most sleep issues in women relate to our biology, some experts suggest there are conditions endemic to women that happen to list insomnia as a side effect. Ada Calhoun’s new book: ‘Why we can’t sleep: women’s new midlife crisis’ suggests that the reason women can’t sleep at night is simply because they have far more going on than men! Ada forms a picture that’s recognisable to any woman who is plate spinning during her maternal, marriage and career years. The book suggests that for every right women have earned, every advance made and every career they become free to pursue, there continues the struggle to manage another almost full-time job – hearth and home.
A study in 2013 found some of the largest gaps in sleep time favouring women were found when interrupted sleep for caregiving was most common. Getting up to take care of others, a task disproportionately performed by women, is highly disruptive to sleep and may reduce overall sleep quality. The study accumulated evidence suggesting that multiple aspects of sleep are shaped by work-family responsibilities and gendered social expectations for their fulfillment.
The stress associated with domestic duties is felt far more so in women than men with women reported as doing up to 3 times more unpaid domestic work than men. Often with no recognition that domestic work is often just as (or more) laborious as any paid job, the pressure of fulfilling these responsibilities at work and home and the inability to ‘switch off’ may lead to sleep deprivation caused by stress and anxiety taking a toll both physically and mentally. In struggling to meet daily employment and familial obligations while tired and sleepy, women further stress their bodies in ways that can cause cumulative sleep debt.
Top sleep tips
- Don’t smoke
- Wear loose clothes for comfort and keep the room temperature cool
- Establish good sleep hygiene
- Try relaxation exercises to help you fall asleep
- Try a warm bath or shower just before bed
- Avoid stimulating substances e.g. caffeine, alcohol and nicotine late-afternoon/evening
- Ensure light exposure during the day to help regulate sleep/wake cycle
- Limit light exposure at night by for example using black-out blinds
- Avoid heavy meals before bed
- Exercise but no later than 2-3 hours before bed
- Do not use any electrical gadgets for at least 30 mins before bed
- Don’t lie in bed awake – if after 20 mins you’re still awake, get out of bed and try a relaxation exercise until you feel sleepy. Often the anxiety over not falling asleep makes it harder to fall asleep!
If you’ve tried literally everything and you still can’t sleep as well as you’d like, it might be worth talking to a behavioral sleep specialist who can give you a more structured plan to break the cycle. You can also try speaking to your GP, as they may recommend similar sleep-hygiene tips. But if those don’t help, they are likely to prescribe sleep aids.
Whilst sleeping pills can give you relief in the short-term, they can be habit-forming and are known to have unpleasant side effects such as sleepwalking or next-day drowsiness, so it is important to try to address the cause of poor sleep and try to find a solution.
Sue’s latest book, ‘Understanding Relationships’, is available to purchase from https://suefirthltd.com/shop/
About Sue Firth
Sue Firth is a business psychologist, stress expert and a leading authority on ‘stress and managing change’. She is also a specialist in helping CEOs and senior executives manage stress, from an individual and group perspective.
As an international speaker and presenter Sue regularly appears in the media and has featured as a guest expert on ITV’s This Morning and BBC Panorama, broadcasting within the UK.
Sue aims to make a difference to the way people think and teaches how to moderate habits to reduce any difficulties while maintaining effectiveness. With extensive experience in consulting at strategic level for both the management of change and the implementation of stress programmes to support employees, she is well placed to offer insight into how organisations can help their people handle life better in changing circumstances.