“I have trouble winding down at night,” says Debi, 50. “Music helps, but the noise disturbs my husband.” She wakes easily when he leaves for work at 5:00 a.m.; then ironically, can’t nod off again. Peggy-Sue, 46, finds her mind working overtime, too. “I close my eyes, but nothing stops my brain from thinking,” she says.
Insomnia, the inability to either fall or stay asleep, strikes one-and-a-half to two times more women than men, says Amy R. Wolfson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, a member of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF’s) Board of Directors, and author of The Woman’s Book of Sleep: A Complete Resource Guide. As women, our sleep is constantly disrupted—whether from snoring spouses, crying children, restless minds or restless legs, she says.
Sanjay Patel, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, believes that in the chaos of our 21st century lives, sleep is often the first thing to go. “It’s really hard for women to find time to sleep,” he says. “They have their historical roles of taking care of the children and the home, and then on top of that going out and working one or more jobs.” One-half of women polled in the latest NSF “Sleep in America” poll claimed that when pressed for time, sleep was the first thing they sacrificed. Merely 20 percent said they’d put work aside when they were overly tired or busy.
Work—and trying to balance it with the rest of life—plays a huge part in women’s struggle to sleep, particularly higher-income women. “You can’t make money without putting your nose to the grindstone, and work can’t help but create stress,” says Joyce Walsleben, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at New York University, and co-author of A Woman’s Guide to Sleep: Guaranteed Solutions for a Good Night’s Rest. “High-earners may be accomplished and organized, but the question is: Do they sleep enough? Can they relax at night, or do they have too much going through their minds?”
It’s not just work that’s on women’s minds when they struggle to slumber. Many feel obliged to take care of everything and everyone—and quite often, it’s expected of them. Women who are wives, moms and full-time-workers are (understandably) more likely to experience insomnia than other women, with over half waking frequently in the night. Most plow straight through the day, however, despite their exhaustion, with over 50 percent buoyed by an average of close to three cups or cans of soda, tea or coffee. Yet nearly 40 percent say they spend too much time worrying.
Part-time working wives and mothers claim to sleep well, and when daytime tiredness strikes, use caffeine or naps to keep themselves moving. (Their more flexible schedules allow 60 percent to nap at least once per week, as do those of women in their 50s, who due to hormonal disruptions report the most sleep problems of all.) Still, nearly three-quarters of both working and stay-at-home moms report signs of insomnia, the NSF survey finds.
Frequent travel (for some women, part of business as usual), can wreak havoc on your body and mood, Walsleben says. Mood troubles can cause sleep troubles, too, and since women are twice as prone to depression as men, this could definitely influence their higher risk of insomnia. “Then there’s the natural female tendency to want to make everything better—to fix things and talk it out. Unfortunately, we’re also prone to bringing those same issues to bed; while men are more likely to settle things and move on,” she says.
Being a woman means existing in a constant flux of hormonal activity. “If you’re pregnant in your 30s and 40s, the release of progesterone can be quite sedating,” Wolfson says. “During the first trimester, some women are exhausted all day; then kept awake by insomnia all night.” In the perimenopausal years, hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia and irregular menstruation make a night’s worth of sleep the exception instead of the norm. And for one-third of women in the NSF survey, even menstruation can make sleep difficult.
“Really, it’s amazing any of us sleep at all!” says respirologist Judith Leech, M.D., medical director at Renfrew Victoria Hospital Sleep Disorders Laboratory in Ottawa, Canada.