Sleep disorders affect men and women differently. Although men apparently suffer more from sleep apnea, women are more likely to report spending their nights tossing and turning.
Researchers aren’t sure why women seem to have more trouble sleeping than men, but they have noticed that women have the most difficulty when hormone levels fluctuate. In other words, women are most likely to have problems sleeping soundly during pregnancy, early motherhood, menopause, and at certain times during the menstrual cycle.
Whether changing hormone levels is directly linked to sleep is yet to be determined. Several studies are trying to pin that down, says Margaret Moline, Ph.D., a sleep disorder specialist in New York.
Your period and sleep
Researchers know that the hormone progesterone causes sleepiness. They also know that a woman’s progesterone level rises during mid-month ovulation and then drops dramatically at the onset of a period. That drop also is the time when women report having the most sleep problems. An exception is PMS sufferers, who seem to have trouble sleeping all the time. PMS sufferers get about one-third less deep sleep than women with no PMS symptoms.
To improve sleep during your period:
- Take a warm bath a couple of hours before bedtime. The warmth should help you relax.
- Schedule more time for sleep. Either go to bed earlier or take a nap in the afternoon.
- Avoid caffeine late in the day. Drink your last cup of coffee by 4 p.m.
- For a relaxing evening drink, try a glass of milk.
- Don’t do anything energizing close to bedtime. Exercising, paying the bills, or anything that causes you to be alert may keep you awake.
- Avoid sleeping pills. Changing your behavior works better and is less dangerous in the long run.
Pregnancy and sleep
As any woman who has ever been pregnant can attest, the body goes through profound changes during pregnancy. It’s probably not too surprising that the quality of sleep suffers, too.
A study conducted by Kathryn Lee, Ph.D., a San Francisco sleep expert, compared the sleep habits of 33 women a year before pregnancy, during the pregnancy, and three months after the pregnancy. In the first trimester when the body is adjusting to abnormally high hormone levels, the women felt sleepier than usual, but they also had a harder time falling asleep. During the second trimester, sleep got easier. But entering the third-trimester women had trouble sleeping again, mainly because of the physical discomfort of carrying a baby.
In the three months after giving birth, women reported very disturbed sleep. Research has found that childbirth may permanently affect sleeping patterns. The women in Dr. Lee’s study who had at least one previous child slept less deeply than women who had never been pregnant.
To improve sleep during and after pregnancy:
- Be prepared to get more sleep. Take naps and go to bed earlier. Your body needs more sleep during this time. If you work and can’t nap, put your feet up and rest.
- Sleep on your left side. Many women find sleeping on their left side—and often putting a pillow under their legs—relieves physical discomfort. It’s also best for the baby. Don’t sleep on your back; it could compress the uterus and make it hard for the baby to get oxygen.
- Take naps when the baby takes naps. You are going to need the sleep to cope with early morning feedings that the new baby will demand.
Menopause and sleep
Once women reach menopause, 75 percent report sleeping problems, says Suzanne Woodward, Ph.D., a Detroit psychiatrist.
“The number of women reporting insomnia after menopause exceeds the number of men in the same age group reporting insomnia,” says Dr. Woodward. Much of the reason for this may be physiological—three out of four women will experience hot flashes, a sensation of heat spreading from the chest to the neck and face. But while a hot flash might rouse a sleeper, life changes and the worries that come with older age are more likely to keep them awake, Dr. Woodward says. That’s not to say that middle-aged men don’t worry, too. But the hormonal changes in women “give them a physiological push awake,” she says.
To improve sleep during menopause:
- Practice slow, deep, meditative breathing. Rhythmic abdominal breathing can decrease hot flashes and help promote sleep.
- Keep the bedroom temperatures cooler than the rest of the house to mitigate the effect of late-night hot flashes. A dual-control electric blanket helps, too.
- Avoid alcohol before going to bed. Many people mistakenly believe that alcohol will cause better sleep. In fact, it disrupts the body’s ability to reach deep sleep and causes you to wake up only a few hours after falling asleep.
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