‘You snooze, you lose’ might be the expression, but a growing body of research suggests the opposite is the case for women.
Researchers from Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre recently concluded that women need about 20 minutes more sleep than men each night because their brains are more complex.
“Women tend to multi-task – they do lots at once and are flexible – and so they use more of their actual brain than men do,” Professor Jim Horne, director of the research centre, told Metro UK.
“The more of your brain you use during the day, the more [time it] needs to recover and, consequently, the more sleep you need.”
These findings are corroborated by a December 2013 study that linked inadequate sleep to greater risk of heart disease and diabetes in women. The study also found women are more likely to experience stress, anxiety and depression than sleep-deprived men.
Other research has found that women are disproportionately affected by sleep disorders. Polling company Roy Morgan illustrated this last year when it found that twice the percentage of women (16 per cent) reported suffering from insomnia than men (eight per cent).
Australasian Sleep Association chair Dr Alan Young endorsed the research.
“We know women experience more anxiety, depression and insomnia, and these obviously have a detrimental effect on sleep,” he said.
Dr Young said research into explaining this difference between the sexes is ongoing. But it is well established that shorter sleep times lead to an increased risk of health problems irrespective of gender, he said.
“For people consistently having less than six hours’ sleep a night, there’s a link to other health conditions such as depression and heart disease. That doesn’t mean everyone who’s a short sleeper will develop these conditions but there is an increased risk.”
Why the gender difference?
The answer could be hormones.
Researchers from the 2013 study found the risk of more serious conditions did not increase in sleep-deprived men given their testosterone levels rise following poor sleep.
Women also produce testosterone, but less than men. Other studies have shown oestrogen replacement therapy helps improve sleep quality in post-menopausal women.
An Australian psychologist, Dr Jo Abbott at Swinburne University of Technology, told The New Daily that more research on the effects of testosterone in women could lead to better understanding of sleep loss.
Clean up your sleeping patterns
Australasian Sleep Association’s Dr Alan Young said it is possible to improve quality of sleep through “sleep hygiene” – that is, habits and practices that ensure you sleep well on a regular basis.
Dr Young recommend the following:
• Schedule 30 minutes of “wind down time” before going to bed, such as reading or listening to music;
• Avoid using computers and phones late at night;
• Dim the lights before getting ready for sleep; and
• Try to keep a regular bed time.
So how much sleep do I need?
Though this latest study implies there is a relative amount of sleep men and women need, the reality is sleep needs vary greatly from person to person. In addition to mental exertion, physical activity, ageing and genetic variations influence the amount of rest you require.
Fortunately, figuring out how much sleep you need isn’t rocket science. Dr Young said it is as simple as listening to your body.
“When you’re feeling sleepy, that’s when you should be doing that preparing and going to sleep. We often ignore those cues because we’re going out late or watching television.
“We also need to be careful not to spend too much time in bed, chasing that elusive sleep. There’s no advantage in staying in bed for eight hours if you’re awake staring at the ceiling for two of those hours.”