How Men And Women’s Brains React Differently To Sleep

Quality sleep is essential to our physical, mental and emotional health. Regardless of sex or gender, we share the same sleep needs. (For adults, that’s between 7–9 hours of good slumber nightly.) However, recent studies have shed light on how sleep disorders affect women and men in unique ways, and how the quantity and quality of sleep differ between them.

Women Sleep More Than Men, But…

On average, women in the U.S. sleep more each day than men when accounting for nightly sleep and daytime naps. One large study showed this difference ranged from five to 28 minutes and depended on age. However, women also experience more sleep fragmentation and lower quality sleep compared to men. Some researchers believe women may sleep more in an attempt to make up for poor sleep quality.

According to Michael Twery, PhD, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, women suffer from insomnia at two to three times the rate that men do; however, men are twice as likely to have their slumber spoiled by sleep apnea.

The Science Behind Sleep Differences

Research shows that sex and gender differences do affect sleep. Hormones, anatomy and other physiological differences, as well as societal and familial expectations, all play a role in our sleep quantity and quality. 

Sex-based sleep differences generally begin during puberty and evolve as we age, according to the Sleep Foundation. Women may experience sleep problems connected to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy or menopause. For men, excessively high or low testosterone levels may influence sleep. 

Researchers have found that in most cases, gender norms put additional strain on women, which can affect their sleep. For example, women disproportionately serve as caregivers for family members; caregivers experience more sleep interruptions as well as heightened overall stress that can worsen sleep. Men, on the other hand, may feel heightened cultural pressure to be breadwinners, leading to decreased time devoted to sleep.

Men and Women Sleep Cycles

Some evidence indicates our sleep cycles diverge between age 30–40. Women spend more time in stage 3 deep sleep and less time in stage 1 (the lightest sleep), while men spend less time in deep sleep and REM sleep when brain activity is heightened and dreaming occurs. 

There are also slight differences in our circadian rhythms, our bodies’ 24-hour internal clocks. Womens’ internal clocks are typically a few minutes shorter than mens’, and women often have earlier circadian timing (a tendency to go to bed and wake up earlier).

Ways To Sleep Better

Regardless of sex or gender, lack of sleep takes a toll on our health and wellbeing. It’s crucial to make consistent, quality slumber a priority. Some over-the-counter sleep aids may help induce sleepiness at bedtime; however, they may also cause side effects like drowsiness and fatigue the next day, starting the cycle all over again. 

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