Why do so many women have problems sleeping?
Catching some Zzz’s isn’t always easy if, like me, you spend many nights tossing and turning, mentally preparing tomorrow’s to-do-list and becoming increasingly frustrated as your partner dozes soundly beside you. Sleeping problems are now the most widely reported physiological disorder in the UK and it is estimated that 20 million of us could be suffering.If you’re constantly feeling tired and irritable during the day, you catch every bug going around, and you struggle to maintain a healthy weight, you too may not be getting enough sleep.
Women vs Men
According to a recent YouGov survey nearly half of all women are sleep deprived, yet suffer in silence. Of the 4,100 people questioned, 46% of women experienced problems sleeping, compared with 36% of men, while 36% of women were likely to wake up during the night, compared to 23% of men. In addition, 6 in 10 women admitted to feeling irritable the following day due to fatigue.
The survey also found that many women aren’t seeking medical advice because they consider sleep problems to be a common part of modern day life or simply a side effect of getting older. But experts are warning that if left untreated, sleep deprivation can lead to serious health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
A separate survey found that 63% of women experience insomnia a few times a week, compared with 54% of men, which again highlights the “gender sleep gap”. Women who took part in the survey “reported having more trouble falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up feeling unrested.”
And these findings appear to extend across the pond. A recent US survey of 44,000 adults also found that women have a harder time sleeping than men. Perhaps unsurprisingly, single parents fared the worst; 43% failed to get the recommended seven hours of sleep daily, compared to 33% of adults in two-parent families and 31% for non-parents. The trend for women to fare worse than men was clear in every family type.
Causes of sleep problems
So why do so many women have trouble sleeping? It may be because women have to battle both internal and external factors.
Internally, women have to deal with hormonal shifts each month which interfere with sleep in several ways. Fluctuating levels of oestrogen and progesterone affect the circadian rhythm and make it difficult to regulate our sleeping pattern. The menstrual cycle can also trigger headaches, cramps, and temperature fluctuations which make it even trickier to sleep. Although the severity of symptoms can vary from woman to woman, it’s not unusual for women of childbearing age to suffer poor sleep in the nights before their period.
Stress is also a common culprit. While occasional stress is perfectly normal, persistent stress may lead to insomnia, which can persist long after the initial stressor has been resolved. Women appear to be particularly susceptible to stress and catastrophizing small events as a result of sleep deprivation.
Dieting may play a role. Women are more likely to diet using a calorie controlled diet, which can trigger late night hunger pangs and cravings. It’s important to ensure you consume enough calories during the day to reduce the risk of cravings in the evening. But don’t leave it too late, as eating certain foods in the evening can make it trickier to fall asleep.
There is also a school of thought that women may be biologically programmed to be light sleepers to deal with pregnancy and motherhood. The evolution of “mummy ears” may mean that many women sleep less deeply after having children. However, this latest research found that women had poorer sleep quality than men regardless of whether they had children.
Does the pursuit of sleep get any easier as we age? Not straight away. During menopause oestrogen levels drop quickly, resulting in hot flushes and night sweats. As a result, insomnia is common during this transitional period. However, several years after menopause, when oestrogen levels have stabilised, symptoms may ease.
Overcoming sleep problems
Most of us need about eight hours sleep a night to function at our best, although some people can get by on less. So what can we do to get a decent nights kip? First, we need to understand what’s contributing to the problem. Then, it’s all about maintaining a balance. Try to be physically active during the day to use up energy you are consuming and to release any stress and tension. As little as 20 minutes of exercise can help. In the evening, try to set aside time to relax the mind and body. Most importantly, create a night time schedule that works for you and stick to it.
Night time habits
The body uses certain cues to release melatonin, the hormone that helps the body to sleep. So it’s important to establish a routine – once a routine is established, the body will know when to release melatonin. A good evening routine may include:
- Stretch before bed: Gentle stretches release any tension in the muscles and relax the body.
- Shut off the screens: By far the hardest step for me, but the blue light emitted by phones and laptops can interfere with your natural circadian rhythm and decrease sleep quality. Try to significantly reduce exposure to artificial light in the hours before bed.
- Don’t watch the clock: Constantly checking the time once you’re in bed will make time drag and become frustrating. Resist temptation by removing any clocks and leaving your phone out of reach.
In order to create the best environment, try to keep your bedroom only for sleep. Here are a few tips to transform your bedroom into the perfect night time haven:
- Block out light: Outside light from street lamps can creep into your room, sending wake-up messages to the brain. Use black-out curtains or blinds to keep the body in sleep mode until you are ready to wake. This is particularly important if you work shifts.
- Keep cool: Keeping the body cool is critical for a good night’s sleep. During sleep, body temperature naturally drops before rising as dawn approaches, but a hot room can interfere with this natural cycle. Research indicates the optimal room temperature for sleep is 18 degrees.
- Invest in a good pillow: It’s absolutely essential to pick a comfortable pillow and replace them when they become lumpy. Opt for breathable cotton fabrics that won’t cause you to overheat.
- Tidy your room: 62% of people say that a tidy room is important to their sleep experience. De-clutter and clean so that your room feels inviting.
- Too quiet? Add some noise: While it’s important to eliminate distracting noises, silence can be terrifying to some people. If this is the case, find some ambient and atmospheric music to play quietly in the background, which doesn’t have lyrics or a catchy tune.
Foods to eat / avoid
It’s important not to go to bed hungry, so if your stomach is grumbling grab a small snack before bed. But be careful not to consume too much in order to avoid heartburn and indigestion – keep snacks to a maximum of 150 to 200 calories. It’s also clear that what we eat influences our sleep, so opt for the following foods:
- Turkey, milk or eggs: These protein-rich foods are all rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that works to induce sleep.
- Brown rice or crackers: Whole grain foods make tryptophan more available and so are good to eat with the protein-rich foods above. Try a small bowl of turnkey and brown rice, or cheese and crackers.
- Pumpkin seeds: Pumpkin seeds are also rich in the sleep-enhancing amino acid tryptophan.
- Cherries: Tart cherries are one of the few food sources of melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep.
- Fibre: Recent findings suggest that a diet rich in fibre can help you achieve deeper slow-wave sleep, where the body rests and recovers.
- A warm cup of milk: Dairy products are rich in calcium, which helps the brain to use tryptophan and regulates muscle movements.
- Chamomile tea: This tea may act as a mild sedative by increasing glycine levels, a compound that relaxes nerves and muscles.
Other foods have the opposite effect on sleep, so AVOID these foods before bedtime:
- Caffeine: The high caffeine content in coffee, tea and chocolate interferes with sleep. Try not to exceed 300mg throughout the day.
- Alcohol: While alcohol may not affect the amount of time it takes to fall asleep, it does affect sleep quality. A glass of wine before bed increases the likelihood of a disrupted night.
- High-fat foods: Fat takes a long time for the body to digest which keeps the body awake. Avoid crisps, fried foods and ice cream before bed.
- Fizzy drinks: Carbonated drinks are highly acidic and the bubbles increase pressure in the stomach, making for an uncomfortable night.
- Cereal: Many pre-packed cereals are loaded with sugar, which causes spikes in blood sugar levels and short bursts of energy.
Natural sleep remedies
There are also natural remedies that can improve the length of time it takes to fall asleep and the quality of sleep we experience throughout the night:
- Magnesium: If you generally fall asleep quickly, but don’t sleep through the night, you may be low in magnesium. Modern diets are commonly deficient in this “calming” mineral and studies show increasing magnesium intake can help to reduce symptoms of insomnia. Magnesium is an important neurotransmitter that helps to reduce levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the blood. It also moves stored calcium out of the muscles and back into the bloodstream where it can be mobilised, helping the muscles to relax.
- Lavender: The distinctive floral fragrance of lavender may offer relief from sleep disturbances. Studies have shown that the fragrance promotes deep sleep by reducing heart rate and blood pressure, putting you in a more relaxed state. After just one week, insomnia improved by an average of 20%. Add lavender essential oil to a diffuser or place a couple of drops under your pillow. But be careful not to use too much – an overwhelming fragrance will stimulate the senses and have the opposite effect.
- Valerian: This ancient herb is popularly used as an alternative to prescription sleeping pills. It is believed to increase the amount of a chemical called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain and has shown promise in relieving anxiety and nervous restlessness. Studies have found that after 28 days, a valerian supplement can greatly improve the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and sleep quality, without causing any feelings of morning drowsiness. The root of the plant can be used in teas, tinctures, or supplements, and is a safe and gentle remedy for sleep.
If you’ve been struggling to get a restful night’s sleep, try these simple yet effective tricks to help you find the right balance.