In today’s fast-paced world, a good night’s sleep has become something of an indulgence. It’s fallen down our list of priorities behind work, chores, social time, and entertainment. However, sleep shouldn’t be a luxury. It’s as important to your physical and mental health as food and water.
Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety. Studies show that a good night's sleep improves learning, helps you pay attention, make decisions, and be creative.
Sleep in women differs in many respects from that of men. In general, women appear to report a greater need for sleep and more subjective complaints of non-refreshing sleep than men. Women are more likely to suffer sleep problems like insomnia and to experience excessive sleepiness.
Why are women sleepier on average than men?
For one, various parts of the reproductive cycle present challenges to healthy sleep. Sleep in women is affected at least partially by hormonal factors, with women typically suffering from sleep disturbance in connection with the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause. Menstrual cycles are associated with prominent changes in reproductive hormones that may influence sleep. Sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome may be aggravated by pregnancy. Women may also develop insomnia during pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. It has also been shown there may be a long interval between the onset of symptoms and the correct diagnosis of some sleep disorders.
How does the menstrual cycle affect a woman’s sleep?
Women report disrupted sleep a week prior to their menses (period) and during menses. This is due to changes in the levels of the hormones progesterone and estrogen that can lead to menstrual symptoms such as cramping, moodiness, cravings, and irritability. During the menstrual period, it is common to have an increase in nighttime awakenings and an increase in vivid dreams. Normally, these sleep problems resolve after the start of the period, though some women may have continuing sleep problems such as insomnia. Hormone therapy may alter a woman’s sleep and various symptoms associated with sleep disorders. This should be discussed with your doctor prior to initiating therapy so that you know what changes to expect.
How does pregnancy affect a woman’s sleep?
About 66% to 94% of pregnant women report some form of sleep change during the course of pregnancy. A woman’s sleep may vary by the time period in pregnancy as follows:
First and second trimester of pregnancy: During the first and second trimester, hormone changes during pregnancy, including an increase in the level of progesterone, can greatly reduce the quality of sleep. Women are often more tired during the day and feel the increased need for sleep.
Third trimester of pregnancy: Women tend to have poor quality of sleep in the late stages of pregnancy. Pregnancy leads to an increase in light sleep, a decrease in the amount of deep sleep, and a decrease in dream sleep (REM sleep). There can be an increase in nighttime awakenings and a decrease in the total sleep time. General pregnancy symptoms can lead to poor sleep in the late stages of pregnancy. These can include body aches/cramps, Restless Legs Syndrome, being uncomfortable in certain positions, heartburn, the baby’s movements, the need to urinate during the night, and worrying.
There can also be challenges with sleep for a new mother after having her baby. After giving birth, the baby’s feeding and sleeping schedule places more stress upon the mother. This can create more challenges with sleep times. Studies suggest that women with significant sleep issues, such as insomnia or poor sleep quality, are more likely to report depression symptoms or even develop postpartum depression. When a new mother’s sleep is severely interrupted, it can also lead to problems, including trouble bonding with the baby or caring for the baby, and even behavioral or emotional issues for the baby.
Tips to improve sleep during pregnancy:
- During pregnancy, a healthy diet is recommended to help minimize symptoms of heartburn.
- Heavy meals, caffeine, and spicy foods should be avoided within two to three hours prior to bedtime.
- Limit your fluid intake during the evening so that you do not have to get up as often to urinate.
- Have a comfortable bed, pillow and sheets.
- Try sleeping on your left side with one pillow at your back, one between your legs, and one to rest your arms on.
After the baby is born, it is very important to try to get as much sleep as possible. Sleep deprivation is quite common especially as you try to meet the needs of your newborn. The lack of sleep can affect your mood and may lead to postpartum blues or postpartum depression.
The following tips may help you get adequate sleep after delivery:
- Take a nap when your baby naps.
- Ask for help around the house and try to delegate household chores.
- Ask your partner for help with nighttime feedings.
- Have a daily routine for you and your baby.
- Control the temperature in your bedroom.
- Use fans and light bed linens.
- Do not take a hot bath or shower within one or two hours of bedtime.
How does menopause affect a woman’s sleep?
Menopause is the period when the menstrual cycles ends. It can occur naturally, with hormonal changes or surgery. It can happen in your 40’s or 50’s when no menstrual period occurs for 12 months. During menopause, women have decreased deep sleep and increased nighttime awakenings. Changes in estrogen levels can result in hot flashes, night sweats, headaches, and palpitations, which can directly affect sleep.
Hot flashes usually last only a few minutes but it may take time for you to settle down into sleep again. This can interrupt sleep and cause women to be tired during the day. It can also cause mood changes. About 20% of women will experience depression during this time.
The following tips may help ease problems with sleep that are caused by hot flashes:
A variety of prescribed medications and over-the-counter supplements are available to treat hot flashes. Ask your healthcare provider which medications are safe and effective in managing your symptoms.
In postmenopausal women, the lack of progesterone increases the risk of development of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Sleep apnea can occur in about 47-67% of postmenopausal women. Symptoms include snoring, gasping or choking during sleep, frequent nighttime awakenings and daytime sleepiness. During menopause, the risk for sleep apnea in women increases. A sleep study may be needed to determine if you have sleep apnea and you should speak to your doctor to discuss this.
Besides this for many women, family and work responsibilities can make a full night's sleep difficult. Feeding an infant or responding to young children at night, or working in the evenings to accommodate a busy daytime family schedule—many women find themselves stretched between work and home life, and healthy sleep often takes a back seat.
If this sounds familiar, don't let sleepiness become the norm. Women who experience excessive sleepiness should bring this to their doctor's attention at their regular well visit, or make a special appointment with their doctor to discuss it.
There are many changes in behavior and sleep environment that can help, such as addressing sleep temperature, managing light, avoiding caffeine in the afternoons, eating lightly and avoiding alcohol before bed, and learning ways to cope with anxiety and stress that can lead to insomnia.
Women face unique sleep challenges, whether biological or lifestyle related, and it's important to ask for help in addressing this. Especially with busy lives, work, and family responsibilities, good sleep is vital to keeping us happy, healthy, and productive.