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June 12, 2013 / JayMan

Women and Sleep

ABC News ran a story two nights ago about men and women and sleep:

The story cited that women are, on average, lighter sleepers than are men, being far more easily awakened. (Now I’m sure Heartiste and a few others will have a little bit of fun with this particular video.) It featured ABC’s current female TV M.D. complaining about her inability to sleep soundly, purportedly thanks to her husband’s snoring (a point with which he happily agreed). So they conducted a sleep study to monitor the quality of her sleep. Sure enough, next to her snoring husband, she awoke 173 times during the night! That morning she complained about how poorly rested she was, noting that this was typical of her days.

However, the following night, they repeated the sleep study, this time with her alone in the bed. This time, they found that she woke only 135 times! The husband may be a factor in the wife’s disturbed sleep, but the fundamental problem was her.

Apparently, women sleep much less soundly than men do. I started wondering why this may be so.

It is no secret that women have trouble with sleep. Women make up the majority of users of prescription sleep aids, outnumbering men by nearly a factor of 2.

But what’s the purpose of this disrupted sleep? Well, the first explanation that came to mind is that perhaps women are lighter sleepers because women needed to be more alert to the needs of children. Odds are it is the mother, and not the father, that will respond to that crying baby.

In pre-modern times, this probably wasn’t much of a problem. Women would just make up for any lost sleep the following morning. But in today’s world, with women having entered the traditionally male world of work with its rigid schedules, lost sleep became much more of an issue.

I did a search for research on this angle, and so far haven’t found much. I’m sure I can’t be first one to have proposed this idea. It would be interesting to see if it holds water.

In the meantime, for those women who have this problem, you may want to consider not getting up so early, if you can (yeah right).

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17 Comments

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  1. anon666 / Jun 12 2013 10:29 AM

    Another issue it causes:

    “A survey of 70,000 women aged over 16, published in 2005, showed that women who slept five or fewer hours a night were a third more likely to put on at least 33lb than sound sleepers.”

    This an other problems are apparently being countered by a trend among the educated classes to sleep in separate beds or even separate rooms:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/jun/08/separate-beds-key-good-sleep

    • JayMan / Jun 12 2013 11:48 AM

      It’s not clear that lack of sleep causes weight gain. Always be careful with the word “cause”.

  2. Sean / Jun 12 2013 11:56 AM

    Women are more easily awakened, they are also less disturbed by being awakened and more easily fall back asleep. In general co-sleeping has stronger adverse affect on men.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/5197440.stm

    • JayMan / Jun 12 2013 12:05 PM

      Interesting. Here’s the cited study. I’d prefer to see larger samples with different types of couples before I generalize too much.

  3. chrisdavies09 / Jun 12 2013 12:23 PM

    “It’s not clear that lack of sleep causes weight gain. Always be careful with the word “cause”.”

    Disrupted sleep is associated with causing an increase in production of the stress hormone cortisol which in turn may lead to greater calorie intake. I think. Or disrupted circadian rhythms. I think that studies on night shift workers reached a similar conclusion anyway.

    My experience is that women worry far more than men so this may have a partial effect on disrupting their sleep. Also I wonder if the variations in women’s body temperature as a result of hormonal fluctuations throughout their menstrual cycle play a part as well.

    What really annoys me (and disturbs my sleep) is having the duvet pulled off me while I am asleep. Do all women do that or is this just my experience of them?

    • JayMan / Jun 12 2013 1:33 PM

      Disrupted sleep is associated with causing an increase in production of the stress hormone cortisol which in turn may lead to greater calorie intake. I think. Or disrupted circadian rhythms. I think that studies on night shift workers reached a similar conclusion anyway.

      Well, the trouble is that is it the disrupted sleep causing weight gain, or do those who are prone to weight gain have disrupted sleep, or are both caused by some third factor? That’s the key problem with trying to establish the cause.

      What really annoys me (and disturbs my sleep) is having the duvet pulled off me while I am asleep. Do all women do that or is this just my experience of them?

      Sounds like it’s just you, man… :)

    • Messi / Jun 14 2013 6:22 AM

      Elavated cortisol causes high blood sugar, muscle atrophy, and fat gain in the stomach, face and upper arms.You can’t attribute that to high cortisol people having obesity genes, cortisol levels can change over time, and temporary elevated cortisol has the same fattening effect as lifelong high cortisol.

      Plus, I’ve known several normally thin people whose stomachs and faces (and nowhere else) suddenly inflated when switched to a lifestyle that raises cortisol (lack of sleep, overexcersizing) many of who returned to their original shape after switching their lifestyle back.

  4. Amber / Jun 12 2013 6:10 PM

    As the parent of small children, I have not had a full night’s sleep in YEARS. First pregnancy and the constant peeing. Then the nursing. At this point, I don’t know if I remember how to sleep for a full night. :P Men can afford to sleep. Women can’t. We have to wake up for our babies. If we don’t, a leopard might eat it.

    I have observed that when I am really sleep-deprived or tired, my systems go wonky. On a warm day my core will be cold, almost shivering, and my feet hot. I feel weak, my blood-sugar regulation works even worse than usual, I’m super-hungry and have to eat a lot to stabilize the fluctuations. My suspicion is that the over-production of stress hormones causes sugar uptake to provide for a flight-or-fight response (which never comes, because the stress is the rather novel phenomenon of being tired at work rather than a tiger chasing you,) which in turn drives appetite to replenish blood-sugar levels. (In short, we are not well-adapted to long-term stress–and the long-term stresses we did face were nutritional, so packing on more pounds when possible under stress was probably adaptive.)

    I’m getting pretty speculative. But sleep is clearly important, and we humans aren’t getting as much as we used to (thanks to lightbulbs and TVs and the like.) Various important systems are probably negatively impacted by the change.

  5. The Man Who Was . . . / Jun 12 2013 6:49 PM

    Have you bought Bryan Caplan’s book yet:

    Lot’s of stuff on how to reduce parenting stress.

  6. Hindu Bio Diversity / Jun 13 2013 1:15 AM

    “This an other problems are apparently being countered by a trend among the educated classes to sleep in separate beds or even separate rooms:”

    Not only is this great for sleep and health but for your sex life too! Let me explain;

    When I first got married my husband and I slept in separate beds for the first two years and only slept together on nights we had sex. He had his room and bathroom which he kept in the manner he liked it, and I had my own bedroom and bathroom which I kept in the manner I liked. Neither of us cleaned the others’ room or bathroom.

    We also had a third room that we used for lovemaking and we decorated it in a very romantic/sensuous way and both of us kept it clean together.

    The separation kept the “mystery” alive between us and limited the “gross factor” that can turn many couples off from each other, such as seeing a ring of his poo in the toilet or smelling the bathroom after he just shat, or something like that.

    My husband never devolved into a smelly, shitty, sexually unattractive man because that part of him was kept to his own bedroom and bathroom!

    Also, having a romantic room that’s reserved for us along also boosted the excitement in our sex lives. It was a place we looked forward to going to, to keeping up, to buying new things for like scented candles or what have you.

    And of course sleeping in separate beds most nights of the week got us lots of sleep which was great for our mental and physical kids.

    BUT ALL THAT CHANGED ONCE WE HAD KIDS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Now?

    We are co-sleepers. The lovemaking room has turned into a huge bedroom for our entire family and we sleep every night together, side by side with our babies.

    This gives our babies the best sleep of their lives as they are comforted by the skin and smell of daddy and mommy and their heart beats regulate to ours.

    It also makes us sleep more soundly knowing they are safe and content next to us, not off in some bedroom on the other side of the house, alone, lonely, nobody to soothe them.

    Plus when I need to breastfeed I don’t even have to get out of bed. My youngest baby is right there with me.

    When we want to make love we simply go into another room for a short session.

  7. Amos / Jun 13 2013 1:48 AM

    I think this illustrates yet another example of the problems I have with evolutionary explanations. This one especially has too much of a ‘just-so story’ veneer, namely that if men were the ones who had lighter sleep, the explanation would be that men–rather than women–have to be up at a moment’s notice to protect the tribe from other marauding tribes or predators.

    I mean, it certainly is the case that women are more sensitive to higher pitches (babies crying), so that in my mind at least helps differentiate a bit better than the example of sleep.

    • JayMan / Jun 13 2013 10:38 AM

      I think this illustrates yet another example of the problems I have with evolutionary explanations. This one especially has too much of a ‘just-so story’ veneer, namely that if men were the ones who had lighter sleep, the explanation would be that men–rather than women–have to be up at a moment’s notice to protect the tribe from other marauding tribes or predators.

      I completely agree. It’s speculative. I have no way to test this idea at the moment, as all such explanations should…

      From a practical standpoint however, the origin of the trait is a different matter entirely from the fact that the trait exists. Women still have to deal with being more likely to be light sleepers, and all the problems that entails in the modern world, regardless of what the ultimate explanation turns out to be.

  8. Ted / Jun 13 2013 2:02 AM

    “I pre-modern times, this probably wasn’t much of a problem. Women would just make up for any lost sleep the following morning. But in today’s world, with women having entered the traditionally male world of work with its rigid schedules, lost sleep became much more of an issue.”

    Of the few tribal cultures I know of, women provide more of the mainstay. They are gatherers, pot makers, weavers, cleaners, etc… If something is out of wack in the modern working world, and our relationship to it, men certainly aren’t more suited for the simple tedious work the defines most labor.

    • Hindu Bio Diversity / Jun 13 2013 2:05 PM

      I lived amongst tribes in South Asia and they are up before dawn doing work. Even in the villages, towns and cities, the people, women especially, rise extremely early compared to Americans on so called “rigid schedules”.

      There is so much work to be down around a South Asian household that must be done in the morning, what to speak of around the outdoor environment in a tribal setting.

      Sometimes I asked; can’t you guys just wake up at 7 and do all this later? The answer was always “no” and they were reasons for that.

      Modern people, with our so called “busy schedules” look like complete slackers in comparison.

  9. Chris / Jun 14 2013 8:27 PM

    We’ve experimented with separate beds and rooms the last month. So far it has gone well, improving sleep for both my wife and I. I have also noticed that I’ve been more productive work-wise, having the energy to work in the evenings and late nights on new apps. However, it does seem to cause diminished togetherness but that may simply be a result of me working more. I imagine that will work out once we get accustomed to the new pattern. Perhaps predictably, I found it far easier to make the adjustment than my wife and I let her keep the bed :)

  10. The Indofiles / Jul 2 2013 11:43 PM

    “The argument that a young person can be “propagandized” into turning gay may seem outdated (not to mention an overestimation of the power of propaganda)”

    Propaganda works very well. Advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry for a reason.

    • JayMan / Jul 3 2013 3:52 PM

      Wrong post?

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