Increasingly, science is deepening our understanding about the differences in sleep for men and for women. Adult men and women have the same essential need for sleep – nearly all healthy adults require between seven to nine hours a night to feel rested and function at their best. But men and women experience sleep differently throughout their lifetimes. Throughout their adult lives, men and women face different challenges to sleep, and different risks from poor quality and insufficient sleep. Women are more prone to insomnia, while men are more likely to suffer from sleep-disordered breathing such as snoring and sleep apnea, particularly during early adulthood and middle age.
Hormones influence sleep
One significant way gender influences sleep involves how men and women’s hormonal differences affect sleep patterns, sleep duration, and sleep quality. The hormonal shifts associated with important stages of women’s lives—in menstruation, during pregnancy, and in menopause—can have significant effects on sleep. The sex hormones estrogen and progesterone are also both involved in regulating sleep and wakefulness. Progesterone promotes drowsiness and acts with a sedative effect in the body. Changing levels of progesterone can lead to feelings of sluggishness (when progesterone is high) and difficulty with falling asleep and staying asleep (when progesterone is low). Estrogen influences sleep in several ways. Estrogen levels directly affect how long it takes to fall asleep, how restless or sound sleep is, as well as overall sleep duration. Estrogen also influences temperature regulation within the body, which itself has an effect on sleep. And estrogen plays a role in the regulation of several other hormones that exert influence over sleep, including the “stress” hormone cortisol, the “sleep” hormone melatonin, and the hormone serotonin, which affects both sleep and mood.
Pregnancy, menstruation, menopause
During reproductive years, estrogen and progesterone fluctuate as part of the monthly menstrual cycle. Within each monthly cycle, estrogen and progesterone rise and fall.
Repeatedly, leading to ongoing changes to sleep. Pregnancy brings significant changes to estrogen and progesterone levels, as well as physical changes to the body that make sleep difficult. Sleep problems are very common among pregnant women.
A woman’s reproductive years can pose hormonally-driven sleep difficulties, but these same hormones also may have a protective effect for women. Research indicates that women’s overall sleep quality may be higher than men’s during early adulthood and middle age. In menopause, estrogen and progesterone levels decline and women face new and often more serious challenges to sleep. During and after menopause, women are more likely to experience disrupted sleep, sleep-disordered breathing, and alterations to mood that can negatively affect sleep. The physical expressions of menopause, including hot flashes, also make routinely sound and restful sleep more difficult.
Testosterone and sleep
The hormone testosterone affects both men’s and women’s sleep. Levels of testosterone naturally rise at night and fall during the day. The highest levels of testosterone appear during REM sleep. Sleep disruptions in men and women have been linked to low testosterone levels, which gradually decline with age. Men and women with low testosterone levels are more likely to experience sleep apnea. Problems with sexual function can occur for both men and women with low testosterone.
There is a correlation between poor and insufficient sleep and cardiovascular disease. Some evidence suggests that men and women may face different types of sleep-related risks to heart health.
Stress is different for men and women
Men and women tend to experience and cope with stress differently. Stress can be powerfully disruptive to sleep. The distinct ways that men and women experience social factors, such as childrearing and other family responsibilities, as well as pressures of work, may provide them with different triggers for sleep problems throughout life.