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Forty Winks? For Many Women, It's More Like 10

March 26, 2001|SUSAN REIMER | BALTIMORE SUN

You've heard the joke: I slept like a baby last night--I woke up every two hours.

Plenty of women aren't laughing.

The stresses of work, combined with the messes waiting at home, and compounded by the micro-parenting most of us engage in, make a good night's sleep more than just a healthy idea for a woman. It is necessary for her survival.

But most of us aren't getting it.

We certainly aren't getting the 8 1/2 hours that is the recommended daily adult dose. And the five or six hours we do get is probably interrupted at least once, and perhaps every couple of hours.

The news about sleep isn't good. Women suffer the same kinds of sleep disruptions as men for the same reasons: bad sleep habits, including circadian rhythms that undermine sleep; psychiatric issues such as depression; medical issues, including the side effects of medication; and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and "restless leg" syndrome.

"Women have sleep problems because humans have sleep problems," says Dr. David Neubauer, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center. "Women experience the same problems that men experience.

"Having said that, it is certainly true that more women do have trouble with their sleep."

As men and women age, they report increased difficulty sleeping. But from the mid-40s on, the incidence of sleep disruption for women increases on a much steeper slope.

The hormonal changes that occur at about that time are part of the explanation. But women still have trouble sleeping after these hormone changes are complete, and researchers such as Neubauer don't really understand why.

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Though the cause may be mysterious, old-fashioned remedies seem to work. For example: sleep in a cool room.

"That doesn't mean you should be shivering," Neubauer said. "Get covered up, because it is the facial temperature that is key. Your thermostat is in your face."

Neubauer also suggests a "sound blanket."

"You don't have to spend $150 on a rain-forest noise machine. A fan will do. A nice, low-frequency hum is very comforting. It is hypnotic, and it screens out random noises."

What is keeping women awake nights?

Maybe it's hot flashes, maybe it's over-tiredness. Maybe we worry more, maybe it's his snoring or our body clock. Maybe it is a physiological mystery.

We can tinker with the many factors of sleep until we find a routine that works for us: Read, don't read. Don't watch TV in bed, leave a window open, turn a fan on. Obey your body clock and go to bed earlier and be prepared to rise earlier. Don't wrestle with the covers, just get up and go into another room.

Whatever the special sleep problems of women, men and women share one cause, Neubauer says.

"We don't respect sleep," he says. "It is important. It is natural. It is healthy. You are not going to function well without it.

"Eight hours is a good place to start, but some people need more, and most people are getting by with a heck of a lot less, and some are barely getting by.

"Our lives and our society really work against our ability to get enough sleep or to sleep at the time that our bodies want us to sleep.

"And we are paying a price for it."

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