Like the Rolling Stones song said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.” Truer words have never been spoken when it comes to sleep, and researchers seem to believe that the sleep needs of women are greater than men.
We could easily get into the weeds on this and show the connections between the concepts of women being better multitaskers than men as well as the differences in the brains of men and women. For those of you that enjoy the scientific details, this recent study provides a detailed explanation of male and female brain differences, their effects on reasoning, stress, and other important health markers. For our purposes, let’s stick to the idea that scientists believe that women need more sleep than men.
The truth of the matter at this stage is that researchers seem to be saying that when it comes to recognized benchmarks for what constitutes sufficient sleep for all adults (eight-hour minimum); it is more critical for women to reach that benchmark than men. The most recent completed and recognized study that came to this conclusion was actually published in 2008.
The study’s research group was by lead author Dr. Edward Suarez, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center. The study was, and is seen as the leading work providing empirical evidence that suggests that poor sleep may have more serious health consequences for women than for men.
For those with a low tolerance for scientific jargon, this news article from Duke Medicine breaks the study and its results down in a common-sense way. Researchers studied a group made up of 210 men and women that were healthy, non-smokers with no history of sleep disorders. The participants filled out a detailed questionnaire that asked specific questions about sleep and mood during the previous month.
Blood samples provided the measurement of biomarkers for risk of heart disease and diabetes, including insulin and glucose levels, fibrinogen (a clotting factor) and two inflammatory proteins, interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein. Women who reported a higher degree of sleep disruption also had higher levels of all the biomarkers tested.
In the article, Dr. Suarez summed up the researchers’ perspectives on the results:
“Interestingly, it appears that it’s not so much the overall poor sleep quality that was associated with greater risk, but rather the length of time it takes a person to fall asleep that takes the highest toll,” says Suarez. “Women who reported taking a half an hour or more to fall asleep showed the worst risk profile.”
The importance of this study cannot be overstated, which is why you may have recently read about it in the news as publications of all types look for a new angle. Many of them have focused on the symptoms of increased pain, depression, and anger that come from the lack of sleep as pointed out in the study.
Others have made the health implications of increased risks of diabetes and cardiovascular disease the primary focus. Still other articles have even explored the connection to a suggested increased possibility of Alzheimer’s later in life for women.
While all of these points are valid, what may be most important is the advice that sleep specialists, physicians, and researchers all provide as ways to mitigate this risk—getting more sleep. Researchers for this study and others have suggested strategic naps that are either 25 minutes or 90 minutes in duration as other durations can lead to feeling worse.
For those that do live with chronic sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, it’s important to understand that all of us are subject to the same consequences of insufficient and low quality sleep. These include their effects on the mind, mood and health, both in the short term and the long term.
While the underlying causes that lead to poor sleep can be varied, the solutions, such as CPAP therapy for those with sleep apnea and a variety of lifestyle changes for otherwise healthy adults, can improve our daily lives and health prospects now and in the future. When it comes to better health and sleep, it turns out you can get what you need when you try.