Doctors agree, women need more sleep than men
Science says our brains work harder
It usually starts slow. One by one, you feel the knots in your body begin to release, and your muscles unclench. The day has been long and arduous. You let yourself sink deeper into this warm embrace enveloping every inch of you. Your body feels heavier and lighter at the same time. The throbbing vein on your forehead finally relents as you let yourself flow into the folds of the fabric. While this has all the makings of a slow-burn introduction to a spicy novella (try these erotic reads while you’re at it), we’re talking about a sweeter release. When your body finally feels the caress of your bedsheet, not for a night of intimacy with a partner (or yourself), but for much-needed healthy sleep.
Women need more Zzzzs than men, and they are not getting it. It may not be news that night feedings, getting up to go to the loo and thinking about how we’ll pull off afternoon pick-ups from school and then make it back in time for the evening team meeting are keeping us up at night. But we don’t realise how much the lack of healthy sleep affects every aspect of our waking life.
We’re not just talking about dark circles (though they’re not always linked to sleepless nights) and morning grumpies that need a double espresso to tame.
Before any accusations are levied about making this a woman vs. man problem, we should say that it’s how the literature reads. The Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University found that women, on average, need around 20 minutes more sleep than men. Because their brain works harder.
In the medical community, there is an ongoing debate about whether men and women have different brains, says neurologist Dr Mukesh Acharya. But, he says, “We dismiss it because of how this research has been abused to malign women.”
“I will say that they are not the same in how they function. One study found that male brains have more connections within each hemisphere. Female brains have more connections between the two hemispheres.”
Acharya says that in action, men can deeply engage this part of the brain to focus on one activity precisely. Women engage different parts of the brain and are better at doing multiple tasks simultaneously.
If men are given a task, their brains can put on blinkers and resolve whatever problem is at hand. But, unfortunately, this also means they are less likely to consider other human factors, such as someone’s mood or their other tasks of the day, that may derail its completion. This is something women are more likely to be tuned into, “what people often call ‘women’s intuition’.”
This complex brain activity requires greater recovery time.
What is healthy sleep?
While you’re drooling onto your pillow, your body is actually doing a lot internally. Sleep is the period of recovery for your energy levels and your brain. We need sleep for hormones to be regulated and the body to heal itself of any distress caused throughout our day – including fighting any ailments that may be lingering just below the surface.
Acharya describes healthy sleep as rest that is uninterrupted. We cycle through different stages of sleep through the night – light to deep sleep, which is NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement) and back to the beginning. “When your sleep is interrupted, the cycle breaks and has to start all over again. Increasing the chances of not getting through the full cycle that our bodies need,” says Acharya.
Each stage of sleep is essential. NREM is where your breathing slows down, muscles are temporarily paralysed (so you don’t enact your most vivid Shaktimaan-style dreams in bed), your blood pressure drops and your energy levels increase. REM sleep is essential for brain health. Healthy REM sleep patterns can boost learning, memory retention, mood, and creativity.
Why do women struggle to get healthy sleep?
So the big question is, why aren’t women getting enough sleep? The immediate answer would be the human factors that keep us awake at night and get us up early in the morning. The same multitasking brain can be tough to silence. Your body is exhausted, but the mind won’t rest. You were up late, cleaning up after dinner, shooting off work emails and making sure all the lights were switched off in the house. Now, you need to be awake to get the kids up and ready for school, open the door to get milk when the doodhwala comes around, and make sure your partner doesn’t hit the snooze button one too many times. This, too, is when the kids are older. Sleep can become a distant dream when you have a newborn or toddler to care for.
Beyond lifestyle factors, biological factors make it difficult to get sound sleep.
Studies note that women are 40% more likely to have insomnia than men. Another found that women are more sensitive to sound than men, which can interrupt their sleep. Perhaps it’s evolutionary; while the men hunted, the women kept an ear out for possible threats to themselves and their children. That same keen ear makes you rush at the first sound of a plate being broken or your little one falling and scraping their knee.
Our greatest biological frenemy – hormones – also change how we sleep throughout our life cycle. Women are more likely to develop restless leg syndrome during menstruation, pregnancy, and even breastfeeding. Menopause’s accompanying symptoms, such as hot flashes and sleep apnea, make getting a good night’s rest a serious challenge.
How does poor sleep impact women’s health?
Sleepless nights would throw anyone off their game, but when you consider the workings of female hormones and our disposition to specific ailments, the impact can be dire.
More likely to have insomnia, women have a greater chance of developing anxiety and depression as a result. This kicks off a vicious cycle that can worsen insomnia, too.
In an interview, Dr Michael J Breus, clinical psychologist and sleep specialist, cites a Duke University study that found that women need more sleep than men; the lack of which has shown an increase in fibrinogen which is “a clotting factor which can lead to strokes.” Breus adds that they noted higher inflammation markers in women, which can lead to pain disorders. An increase in inflammation can damage immune cells, says Acharya, lead to cardiovascular disease in the long run. In addition, poor sleep causes fatigue, impaired cognitive functioning, migraines, and aggravates hypothyroidism.
Expert tips for a healthy sleep
Make your bed
We’re talking about getting your bed ready for the most comfortable sleep possible. Your mattress matters; the type of mattress you need can depend on your spine health. A semi-soft mattress works if you like to sink into a slumber, but if you have any spinal issues or are prone to backaches, then look at medium-hard and hard mattresses that will give you the support you need so you don’t wake up in pain every time you roll over.
You’re more likely to become a hot sleeper as you get older. Choose natural, breathable fabrics for your bedsheets, such as cotton and linen. You can go for the silk pillowcases that are more gentle on your hair and cradle your face as you snooze. But good-quality cotton does the trick, too.
Try the military method
This sleep technique claims you can fall asleep in 2 minutes. Dubbed the military method, as described in Lloyd Bud Winter’s book Relax and Win: Championship Performance, it’s a routine created for US military personnel to fall asleep as fast as possible in any space or condition they find themselves in.
It might not help the first few times you try it, but by practising it consistently, you can train yourself to relax and sleep faster.
Try it out:
1. Slowly relax your entire face. Let the muscles around your eyes relax, and drop your tongue to the bottom. Breathe slowly and deeply and consciously let go of any tense facial muscles, including your forehead, eyebrows and jaw.
2. Move down to your shoulders and hands. With each exhale, release any muscle tension that you can feel.
3. Take a deep breath. As you exhale, relax your chest and let it sink deeper into the bed.
4. Clear your mind. As random thoughts flow through your head, let them go and focus on your breathing.
5. Repeat the words ‘don’t think’ for 10 seconds to clear your mind if nothing else works and refocus on your breathing. After that, repeat as much as you may need.
Daytime napping can be necessary for those who are really unable to meet their nightly need for sleep. Acharya says the ideal nap is 20 minutes or under. It’s a power nap that lets you get some NREM sleep to boost your energy and alertness when you wake up. For the long nap, he says 90 minutes, that’s approximately the length of an entire sleep cycle – from light to deep NREM and REM sleep. The uninterrupted cycle means you wake up feeling rested, more alert and happier rather than feeling like you’ve overslept.
Scramble your brains
You can try playing a mental game which Mumbai-based psychotherapist Sanjeevani Bhatia calls ‘word-lack thereof-association’.
Close your eyes take a deep breath, and exhale. In your mind, think of a word, any word, and follow it up with another completely random, unconnected word. Maybe think of a beach, followed by another unconnected word – aloo gobi.
This is a technique that cognitive scientist Luc Beaudoin terms’ cognitive shuffling’ — purposely scrambling your thoughts. In his 2013 paper published on the subject, he explains that the brain’s constant desire to make sense of everything around us by creating connections isn’t allowing us to sleep, so we distract it with nonsense. His game is a little different from what Bhatia suggests, and you can try it out on a phone app he created to help you fall asleep called mySleepButton.
Wrap up your day one hour before bedtime
This is perhaps the most challenging. Something always seems to come up last minute. But Acharya recommends that as much as you can control it, try to wrap up your chores and tasks for the day an hour before you want to sleep. Then, make your task lists for the next day, get your clothes out for the morning, and finish with morning meal prep. Send your goodnight texts to your parents, watch an episode of the new show everyone’s talking about and then wrap it up. Ideally, leave the gadgets out of the bedroom if you can.
Melatonin is a hormone in our body that reacts to darkness and plays a vital role in our sleep cycle. It can relax you and make you slightly drowsy, enough to ease the process of falling asleep without completely knocking you out like a sleeping pill would, says Acharya.
Melatonin supplements come in different doses. “You don’t become dependent on melatonin. It’s not addictive like sleeping pills, but you should consult a doctor to find a dosage that works best for you.”
You can go for fancier-sounding gummies, sprays and dissolving strips if that’s what will encourage you to have the supplement you need or opt for a simple strip from the chemist. People often fear this supplement, but it can temporarily help you get the rest you need.