Gender Differences in Sleep

By Stacey McKenna

Researchers consistently find that men and women differently, but the hows and whys paint a complex picture of overlapping social and physical influences. The divergence typically emerges after puberty and continues throughout the lifecycle.

Until recently, self-report methods were the cornerstone of sleep . According to subjective perceptions of fatigue and estimates of night-time waking, women are more restless than men. Regardless of age, healthy adult females report more insomnia and inadequate sleep.

However, as more researchers use tools such as actigraphy and polysomnography to objectively record sleep quality and quantity, more complexity emerges. It turns out that healthy women may actually sleep better than men, generally drifting off more quickly and sleeping more efficiently. And while women do receive more insomnia diagnoses, men are much more prone to suffer from Obstructive .

Researchers hypothesize several explanations for these apparent contradictions.

First, regardless of who is being studied, self-report measures of sleep are unreliable, explains Muhlenberg College Psychologist Erika Bagley. “People will say ‘I slept horribly’ … or ‘oh I slept fine’ and they just don’t know,” she says. “People are really bad reporters.” This may mean that women think they’re sleeping poorly — or conversely, that men believe they’re resting well — when in fact the opposite (or a less extreme version of the same) is true.

Second, some scholars posit that culture may make women more likely to report sleep struggles compared to men. Not only may women learn to be more in-tune with their experiences, but it’s more socially acceptable for them to disclose such problems.

But the disparities between men’s and women’s accounts and objective measures may indicate more than differences in reporting. Perhaps, researchers suggest, women suffer from more clinical symptoms due to sleep problems. For example, University of California San Francisco researchers discovered that sleep plays a bigger role in heart health for women than for men.

Why is it so Complicated?

Fleshing out the specific whats and whys of -based sleep disparities is an especially tricky task. Like all questions related to the quality and quantity of rest, researchers must account for the many social and cultural factors that affect sleep. Some studies show that women who don’t receive social support sleep worse. Women are also more likely to report sleeping poorly in conjunction with psychological issues.

But it’s not all sociocultural. Another important factor shaping these differences is physiology, says Dr. Michael Grandner, University of Arizona’s Director of the Sleep and Health Research Program. “Women are more likely to report these problems but it gets better with age, especially if you account for poor health and mental illness,” he explains. “But then also, there are issues of menopause-related sleep problems, and then there’s a peak in women in their 20s and early 30s in terms of fatigue.” Men’s and women’s bodies and thus sleep experiences change differently throughout their lives.

In short, it’s complicated. There are “many hypotheses,” Grandner says, “but they haven’t been teased apart yet.” Fortunately, plenty of research is ongoing to untangle the complicated web of factors influencing sleep.

Tags:  Gender Research Sleep sleep apnea sleep science

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