Why Do Women Need More Sleep Than Men?
Dr. Nayantara Santhi, PhD
Dr. Nayantara Santhi is an associate professor of psychology at Northumbria University in Newcastle. Santhi’s body of work includes numerous articles on how circadian rhythms regulate an individual’s sleep-wake cycle. Santhi’s articles have also focused on related elements such as bright light exposure and melatonin production.
One of the main functions of sleep is to heal the body and brain from the previous day. Women tend to get more sleep than men overall, but it’s more interrupted and low-quality, especially among women with children. Coupled with hormonal changes women experience, studies show they need more sleep than men.
While women are proven to need more sleep, the question is why?
“Differences between men and women in the timing of the circadian clock and its impact on sleep can in part explain why women may have more sleep problems,” notes Dr. Nayantara Santhi. “The circadian clock is set to an earlier timing than in men, even when women and men have nearly identical bedtimes.”
“Also, the period of the circadian clock on average is shorter in women than in men. This means women on average are going to bed at an earlier circadian or biological time than men. Given that women tend to wake up earlier than men, it is not surprising they experience more sleep loss and may be prone to sleep problems.”
In this article, we will discuss the reasons women need more sleep and how they can improve the length and quality of their sleep.
How Women and Men Sleep Differently
A study published in 2014 looked carefully at the gender differences in sleep, paying special attention to sleep disorders in women. Some of the most interesting things they found were as follows:
- Women’s sleep latency was longer than men (they took longer to fall asleep)
- Older women (age 55+) got 20 fewer minutes of sleep than men, on average
- Men spent more time in the NREM sleep stages (stage 1 and 2) than women
- Women were at a higher risk for developing insomnia than men
- Women were at twice the risk of Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) than men
- Men were at twice the risk for OSA, or Obstructive Sleep Apnea than women
Perhaps due to the fact that women seem to be at a higher risk for sleep disruptions and disorders, they need to be more vigilant about sleep hygiene and consistent sleep schedules. For women with small children, this is easier said than done.
On average, women have busier schedules than men. According to a 2013 study published in the American Sociological Review, women do more unpaid work than men, and paid work “has a stronger negative association with sleep time than any other activity.”
Therefore, men should suffer more sleep deprivation than women, but the study found that the opposite was true. However, though women overall get more sleep than men, they get much less high-quality, restorative sleep that’s essential for overall health.
Women comprise a large chunk of the US labor force. Of those women, 43 percent work full time, while 63.9 percent are part-time workers. Additionally, 43.5 million women between the ages of 15 and 50 have children. Providing meals, taking care of household duties, and spending time with children takes a lot of time out of the day—adding a day job on top is even more exhausting.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, working mothers were heavily affected by school and daycare closures. Four times as many women dropped out of the workforce than men in 2020 to tend to their children and homeschool, leaving them with no time to work. This disruption in a rigid daily schedule could cause even more sleep problems for women in the future, though the effects have not been fully studied yet.
Women’s bodies are subjected to hormonal and chemical changes that cause discomfort and pain. Fluctuating hormones can result in cramping, lower back pain, psychological distress, hot flashes, sleep deprivation, sleep apnea, and other sleep problems.
The 2014 study we mentioned earlier, published in the Journal of Women’s Health, uncovered that “Distinct hormonal and physical changes at specific time points, such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, during a woman’s lifespan can impact her sleep health and lead to gender-specific clinical disorders.” The two most common sleep disorders linked to hormone changes in women are Restless Leg Syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea.
When women are pregnant, their bodies experience a surge of progesterone, which uses a lot of energy. This is one of the many reasons sleep needs are greater in pregnant women, but they often experience sleep disruptions.
Not Enough Sleep
Since most women have more demanding schedules, they aren’t getting the rest they need. New parents, in particular, don’t get nearly enough sleep at night. Both mothers and fathers experience severe sleep deprivation in the postpartum period (the three months after birth).
Mothers often have to sync their sleep patterns with their children’s naps and bedtimes to get enough sleep hours. In one study, new mothers got about 30 more minutes of sleep per day than men; this could be because men return to work sooner than women.
Poor sleep can also cause weight gain and obesity. When we stress, higher amounts of cortisol (a hormone) are released, which drives us to eat bigger portion sizes and leads to weight gain. The increased stress can also lead to more irritability, depression, and anxiety.
A Duke University study learned that because women were more likely to experience sleep deprivation, they were also at a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
What Does It Mean To Get Good Sleep?
Even if you get the right amount of sleep—7 to 9 hours for the average adult—you can still be tired if you don’t spend enough time in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
When you sleep, you go through several sleep cycles, including three stages of NREM sleep and one of REM sleep.
- The first stage of NREM sleep takes place a few minutes after you fall asleep and lasts for five to ten minutes. Physically, your eye movements and breathing slow, and your body becomes relaxed—this is the lightest form of sleep as you can regain consciousness from quiet noises, movement, and bright lights.
- During the second stage of NREM, you are harder to wake, although you can wake up from loud noises. In this stage, your brain waves become slower, suspending external awareness and prompting the brain’s restorative processes.
- In the third stage of NREM sleep, your muscles are inactive, and you won’t respond to any stimulants, which makes it harder to wake you up.
- The final stage of sleep is known as REM. REM sleep should account for 20 percent of your sleep time. During REM sleep, your body will repair damaged tissue, and your brain will recover and store information from the previous day.
Everyone needs to reach deep sleep and REM sleep for quality rest. When you wake up, you should feel refreshed and ready for the day.
How to Get Better Sleep
If you find sleep quality isn’t the best, you can try some of our tips to get good sleep.
- Women should consider developing a regular sleep schedule and creating a relaxing bedtime routine to make their sleep better.
- Put your children on a sleep schedule, so you have time to get household chores done and relax before turning in for the night.
- When you go to sleep, your body temperature naturally drops and increases melatonin production, which makes you tired. Taking a warm bath or drinking tea will raise your body temperature before going to bed. In response, your body will decrease its temperature to maintain homeostasis, prompting your body to release melatonin and priming you for an easy transition into sleep.
- Keep your sleep space cool and comfortable. Experts agree the best temperature for sleep is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Keep a sleep journal. If you have any undiagnosed sleep disorders, keeping a consistent sleep journal will help a doctor pinpoint the issue.
- Exercise in the morning instead of at night. People who exercise in the morning have more energy for the day’s activities. If you exercise too close to bedtime, it can interfere with your sleep by raising your heart rate and tensing muscles, which isn’t conducive to restful sleep. If you cannot exercise in the mornings, we suggest avoiding exercise a couple of hours before bed to give your body time to relax.
- Daily exercise improves sleep quality and sleep duration.
- Change your sleep environment to meet a certain sleep need. Look around your bedroom; if it is messy, it could interfere with your sleep. You may also consider upgrading to the best mattress and bedding for your needs, putting up blackout curtains, and removing any other obstacles interfering with your sleep.
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Frequently Asked Questions
How much sleep does an adult male need?
Adult men and women need 7 to 8 hours of sleep. However, most men sleep around 7 hours a night, while women sleep between 8 and 9. Women often need more sleep due to hormonal changes and demanding schedules.
Do men fall asleep faster than women?
“Circadian timing is set to an earlier hour in women than in men, so they may fall asleep earlier,” explains Dr. Nayantara Santhi. “Women also tend to wake up earlier than men and exhibit a greater preference for morning activities than men.”
“Overall, this means that women have a later biological time of sleep (i.e., an earlier circadian phase relative to the timing of sleep). This delayed biological time of sleep may be a contributing factor to the higher incidence of insomnia in women.”
Some women may also struggle to sleep if they’re feeling stressed at bedtime. A relaxing routine and calming tea or a cup of warm milk may make it easier to deal with stressful thoughts before a woman gets into bed.
How many hours is oversleeping?
Anything over 9 hours of sleep is considered oversleeping. If you feel the need to sleep more than 9 hours, it is likely due to sleep deprivation. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day will help reduce the need to oversleep.
Does oversleeping make you tired?
Too little or too much sleep can cause fatigue. Oversleeping can disrupt your natural circadian rhythm and hormone production, making it difficult for you to feel energized and alert the next day. In most cases, oversleeping is caused by sleep deprivation, which also causes a hormonal imbalance. Maintaining a consistent sleep-wake schedule will help regulate your hormones and your natural circadian rhythm.
How much sleep do pregnant women need?
Like most adults, pregnant women need at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep. However, toward the end of the pregnancy, women may find that they need up to 10 hours of sleep. As the baby grows and places more demands on the body, pregnant women may need more recovery time and deeper sleep.
Women need more sleep than men because of the hormonal changes they experience and their daily schedules are more hectic. Because women often have busier schedules, they require at least 20 more minutes of sleep than the average man. Women with children are even more impacted by sleep deprivation, as their sleep is often interrupted and poor quality.
Hormonal changes such as pregnancy and menopause often affect sleep, and women are more at risk for sleep disorders such as insomnia and Restless Leg Syndrome. If you need more sleep, place yourself on a strict bedtime routine and avoid bad sleep habits that interfere with the quality of your sleep.