Being a woman, you are probably aware that for years very little research has been available concerning gender specific sleep problems. You may have found healthcare professionals did not always take your sleep complaints seriously. Recent studies, however, have paid a lot more attention to women’s sleep patterns, needs and special problems. Did you know, for instance, that women are twice as likely as men to have difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep?
Research has also shown that women’s sleep changes over time. In general, women sleep most soundly and are least prone to sleep disturbances during young adulthood. Sleep disturbances in your adulthood are usually associated with the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and motherhood. Also, young women who live a fast paced lifestyle often cut back on sleep and ignore signs of fatigue which can lead to daytime sleepiness, poor concentration and other daytime problems.
As women age, physical and hormonal changes affect the quality of sleep. Older women get less deep sleep and are more likely to wake up at night. Physical factors such as arthritis, disorders of breathing or hot flashes may also disturb their sleep.
Additionally, when women feel stress, depression, fear or other strong emotions their sleep may be disturbed.
Getting enough sleep is enormously important to everyone’s life. Women tackling multiple responsibilities of home, work and family should know that sleep can positively impact concentration, job performance, social interaction and overall well being.
Women’s menstrual cycles may bring discomfort and sleep changes. Some women experience an increased number of awakenings and other sleep disturbances during the premenstrual period. At this point their dreams are often more frequent and more vivid.
Other women report excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue and longer sleeping hours during their premenstrual period.
Premenstrual symptoms such as abdominal cramping, irritability, bloating, headaches and emotional changes can also directly affect women’s sleep. While these sleep problems generally disappear a few days after menstruation begins, some women who suffer more severe symptoms, such as increased tension and irritability, may experience lingering sleep problems and even chronic insomnia.
If you have experienced menstrual related sleep disorders you should pay careful attention to your sleep needs, maintain a regular sleep/wake schedule, eat a healthy diet and try to reduce your stress.
If sleep problems interfere with your daily functioning, you should seek medical advice from your healthcare professional.
Most women report daytime fatigue and the need for longer night time sleep. Increasing levels of the hormone progesterone probably causes this common change in women’s sleep requirement during pregnancy.
Later in pregnancy, particularly during the last trimester, women often notice poor sleep quality. Certain changes in sleep patterns have been confirmed by studies: the amount of slow-wave sleep (deep stages of sleep) decreases and the number of awakenings increases.
Women may find it difficult to sleep in certain positions. Overall sleep efficiency and the proportion of time spent actually asleep begins to decrease by the second trimester and continues to decrease in the third trimester.
In the later stages of pregnancy there are many causes for sleep disruption:
Once the baby is born, the physical stresses of pregnancy on sleep may be replaced by the demands of the baby’s feeding schedule and frequent awakenings at night.
Throughout pregnancy women need to make sure they get enough sleep, maintain regular sleep/wake schedules and avoid stress as much as possible. Because sleeping pills and alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy other measures to improve sleep should be considered. Importantly, alcohol should not be used as a sleep aid even when not pregnant. Muscle relaxation techniques may be effective in promoting better sleep and reducing the discomforts of pregnancy. Maintaining a balanced diet and avoiding heavy meals and spicy foods within two or three hours of bedtime should help prevent heartburn.
After delivery, getting enough sleep continues to be very important, as severely disturbed sleep has been linked to postpartum depression and child abuse. Mothers are encouraged to consider engaging a helper during the day and or at night, especially in the early postpartum period to help the new mother get more sleep at night and naps during the daytime.
Some natural changes in sleep accompany women’s aging process. The amount of deep sleep decreases, sleep becomes lighter and more awakenings occur during the night.
In the years surrounding menopause many women experience sleep disturbances with increased frequency. A gradual change in their sex hormone levels impacts their sleep directly, and indirectly, by affecting other important hormones that are related to sleep.
They may find that hot flashes and night sweats – associated with decreased levels of oestrogen – causes repeated awakenings due to the sensation of heat and sweating, increased heart rate and feelings of anxiety. Although hot flashes usually last only a few minutes, in severe cases a woman may wake up hourly. The sleep disturbance and resultant sleep deprivation generated by hot flashes may result in daytime fatigue, irritability and depression.
The following suggestions may help alleviate sleep disturbances associated with hot flashes:
In the years following menopause, women’s sleep grows lighter and more fragmented. It becomes more difficult to maintain consistent uninterrupted sleep and to maintain long hours of wakefulness during the day. An increase in daytime fatigue can be one result.
Other physical factors can also disturb sleep:
Some sleep disorders occur more frequently in the postmenopausal years. For example, sleep disordered breathing – uncommon in young women – is more common in postmenopausal women. This may be related to falling progesterone levels, since younger women who experience surgical menopause are also at increased risk of developing sleep disordered breathing.
Higher body weight and lower levels of physical activity are also risk factors for this syndrome. Signs of sleep disordered breathing include loud snoring during sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Emotional issues continue to affect women’s sleep at any age. Two conditions worthy of mention are depression and nocturnal eating syndrome.
Insomnia is one of the most common symptoms of depression at any age. If you are a woman who suffers from depression you may tend to fall asleep fairly quickly but awaken in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep. This kind of insomnia may be interpreted as the cause of the depression – “If I could just get more sleep I would not feel depressed” – but getting professional help and treatment for the depression can often solve the insomnia problem.
Some women wake up in the middle of the night and feel that they are unable to go back to sleep until they eat. Unless there is a medical cause (such as an ulcer) this type of problem is typically associated with dieting during the day.
Occasional disturbances in sleep can happen to anyone and generally do not require medical intervention. Serious sleep problems can affect your daily functioning, relationships and sense of well being. When a sleep problem results in disruption in one of these areas, it may be time for you to consult with a healthcare professional.
Women are particularly sensitive to sleep difficulties because they are affected by hormonal changes, family stresses and role conflicts, any of which can affect sleep quality.
Your healthcare professional will be able to refer you to a sleep disorders specialist for a comprehensive evaluation of your sleep difficulties. You may be asked to have your sleep monitored for a more detailed evaluation. At the sleep centre, accurate diagnosis will allow your healthcare professional to develop the right treatment plan for you.