Sleep plays a vital role in promoting a woman’s health and well being. Getting the sleep that you need is likely to enhance your overall quality of life. Yet as a woman you face many potential barriers that can disrupt and disturb your sleep. Overcoming these challenges can help you enjoy the daily benefits of feeling alert and well rested.
Experts suggest that most men and women need about seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Yet there are many differences in how men and women sleep. In general women tend to sleep more than men, going to bed and falling asleep earlier. A woman’s sleep also tends to be lighter and more easily disturbed. Women are more likely to feel unrefreshed even after a full night of sleep.
Women also tend to describe sleep problems using different terms than men. Women may be less likely to say that they feel sleepy during the day. Instead women often describe feeling tired, unrested or fatigued. These expressions reflect feelings of physical or mental exhaustion. Women also may report an overall lack of energy or vitality.
There are many complex factors that may affect how a woman sleeps. Some of these factors change over time. For example, excessive daytime sleepiness is more common when women are in their 20s and 30s. In contrast older women appear to adapt better to periods of sleep loss. This difference has been attributed to the many commitments that compete for a young woman’s time. In particular working moms must balance the demands of their career, family, friends and personal health needs. Yet a recent study provides encouragement for mothers. It showed that having children does not increase a woman’s risk of daytime sleepiness or fatigue.
Common factors that affect a woman’s sleep include:
- Life events
- Bad sleep habits
- Medication use
- Physical or hormonal changes
Other factors that can affect a woman’s sleep include:
Millions of women suffer from an ongoing sleep disorder. These problems often remain undiagnosed. These are some of the 81 sleep disorders that are most likely to affect women:
Insomnia occurs when a person has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, wakes up too early, or feels unrefreshed after sleeping. It is a common sleep complaint that tends to be more common in women than in men. It often is related to another problem such as depression, stress or anxiety, or medication use. In older women it often is caused by other medical problems.
- Obstructive sleep apnea
OSA involves pauses in breathing that occur when tissue in the back of the throat collapses and blocks the airway as you sleep. It has been linked to other serious health problems such as heart failure, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. OSA occurs in about two percent of women. Yet this problem often is overlooked by both women and their doctors. Women with OSA are less likely than men to report having pauses in breathing or loud snoring. Instead they are more likely to have a history of depression or a problem with insomnia.
Snoring occurs during sleep when breathing causes tissue in the back of your throat to vibrate. Habitual snoring occurs in about 24 percent of adult women. Loud and frequent snoring is a warning sign for OSA.
- Restless legs syndrome
RLS involves an intense urge to move the legs. The intensity of this urge increases at night and as you lie or sit still. It is relieved only by walking or moving the legs. RLS may occur up to twice as often in women as in men. It can cause severe sleep disruption.
- Sleep related eating disorder
SRED consists of repeated episodes of compulsive binge eating and drinking after waking up in the night. It tends to occur when you are only partially awake. The majority of people with SRED are women.
- Leg cramps
Sleep related leg cramps are common in women. They involve sudden and intense feelings of pain in the leg or foot.
A nightmare is a bad dream that causes you to wake from your sleep. A nightmare disorder may develop if you have repeated nightmares that cause emotional distress. Recurring nightmares can cause sleep avoidance. They also have been linked to depression and suicidal thoughts. Women report nightmares more often than men and discuss them more openly.
Many medical problems hinder your ability to sleep well. Treating an underlying medical problem often will lead to improved sleep. These are some of the most common medical problems that affect the sleep of women:
- Acid reflux
- Back pain
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson disease
A woman’s body goes through drastic changes during and after pregnancy. These changes can be physical, hormonal and emotional. All of these changes can affect a woman’s sleep.
Most pregnant women experience daytime fatigue even though they may get more sleep. This is because the quality of their sleep tends to be worse. Physical discomfort and awakenings are common. The third trimester tends to be the time when it is hardest to sleep well.
Studies show that snoring often increases during pregnancy. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) also may develop as the pregnancy progresses. Warning signs for OSA may become more evident. These include gasping, choking sounds and pauses in breathing. OSA is more likely to develop if a woman had a high body mass index (BMI) prior to the pregnancy.
Two other sleep disorders that are more common during pregnancy are restless legs syndrome (RLS) and sleep related leg cramps. RLS affects nearly 25 percent of pregnant women. RLS may be related to low iron. So women who must take iron supplements during pregnancy may have a lower risk of RLS. Leg cramps occur in about 40 percent of pregnant women. They tend to go away after delivery.
The hormonal and physical changes that occur during and after menopause can affect a woman’s sleep. Sleep disturbances are more common, and sleep quality can decline. Insomnia related to menopause often occurs.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is much more common in postmenopausal women. This increase may be due in part to menopause-related weight gain. But it also appears to be hormone related. Estrogen seems to help protect women against OSA.
Fibromyalgia often develops due to menopause. Eighty percent of people with fibromyalgia are women. It peaks between the ages of 50 and 70 years. Widespread pain related to fibromyalgia can make it hard to sleep well. Restless legs syndrome (RLS) and sleep related leg cramps are more common as women age. But this increase is not linked directly to menopause.
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Taking Sleep Medications
Reviewed by Rose Franco, MD
Updated August 6, 2007