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Many Women Are Starved for Sleep

It's a problem that can last a lifetime, experts say

FRIDAY, Oct. 10, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Start with the stresses of work and family. Add household responsibilities and perhaps worry about an elderly parent. Then factor in the hormonal changes that come with being female, and it should come as no surprise many women are shortchanged on sleep.

Yet many don't realize it.

"There are very few times in a woman's life when something doesn't interfere with her sleep. Sleep disorders are very common -- and under-diagnosed -- in women," says Dr. Meir Kryger, director of the Sleep Disorder Clinic at St. Boniface Hospital Research Center at the University of Manitoba.

That's not to say men don't suffer from sleep problems, too. But women fall into their own category of sleep deprivation, says Kryger, author of a book on women and sleep that will be published next spring.

"There are many sleep problems that men don't ever have, like the sleepiness of pregnancy, waking up for breast-feeding and hot flashes," he says. "Further, the most common sleep problem is insomnia, and in every single age group beginning at adolescence, women are two times more likely to have insomnia than are men."

Compounding the problem, says Dr. Suzanne Griffin, a Georgetown University psychiatrist who specializes in sleep disorders, is that many women don't realize they are prone to sleep deprivation.

Some come to her saying they think they have attention-deficit disorder or depression. When asked about sleep, they'll say they're sleeping fine, even though they're going to bed at 2 a.m. and getting up at 6 a.m.

"Women don't pay attention to sleep deprivation," Griffin says. "They tend not to ascribe their symptoms to sleep deprivation even when there is a clear connection."

She adds that many women tend to stay up later at night "because it's the only quiet time they have for themselves." Everyone's asleep, the laundry is done, and they can finally have some personal time.

Women and men need between seven and eight hours of sleep a night to perform optimally, Griffin says. Less sleep leads to poor concentration, irritability and fatigue, which can mimic symptoms of other health problems.

"Sleep should be up there with diet and exercise as necessary for good health," she says.

The problem of sleep deprivation among women is widespread, according to the National Sleep Foundation, which polled 1,000 women ages 30 to 60 for a 1998 survey.

Some findings:

  • 74 percent of women sleep less than eight hours a night during the work week; the average sleep time was six hours and 41 minutes.
  • 31 percent of women reported using caffeinated beverages, over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs to help them stay awake during the previous year.
  • 50 percent of women drove while drowsy, and 14 percent dozed off at the wheel in the previous year.

Kryger says one particular sleep problem, sleep apnea, can have serious health consequences. The condition, with symptoms that include snoring, morning headaches and daytime fatigue, occurs when a person stops breathing for 10 seconds or more during sleep. It is associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, and is estimated to affect some 18 million Americans.

Because sleep apnea occurs twice as often in men as women, due to differences in anatomy, it's often under-diagnosed in women.

"There's a stereotypical idea that sleep apnea is a man's problem, so doctors are not looking for it in women, and it can go undiagnosed for many years," Kryger says.

Griffin says it's important for women to realize they might suffer from sleep deprivation.

If testing rules out apnea or one of a number of other conditions like restless leg syndrome, it could be that stress, anxiety or poor sleep habits are causing the sleep interruptions. The doctor can then tell the patient how to start practicing good sleep hygiene, Griffin says.

This includes going to bed and getting up at the same time every night and morning; using the bedroom for sleep and sex only (no television); restricting sleep time to six and a half hours so the person is a little tired but not sleep deprived, enabling her to sleep better the next night; eliminating caffeine; having small frequent meals and exercising early in the day.

Short-term use of medications is another option. Today's sleep medicines aren't addictive and don't make you feel groggy, Griffin says.

The key is to seek help, Kryger says.

"If someone has a sleep problem, it usually doesn't get better on its own," he says.

More information

Tips for better sleeping can be found at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Take this quiz from the National Institutes of Health to see how much you know about sleep.

SOURCES: Suzanne Griffin, M.D., clinical assistant professor, psychiatry, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, D.C.; Meir Kryger, M.D., director, Sleep Disorder Clinic, St. Boniface Hospital Research Center, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada; National Sleep Foundation, Washington, D.C.
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