Sleep, as is well known, plays a crucial role in our health, particularly for the brain and immune system. No wonder, then, that so many research groups have tried to determine the recommended amount of hours of sleep – the “right” amount, neither too little nor too much – for our bodies. To be well, generally speaking, an adult human being needs to sleep between 7 and 8 hours a night, but this is obviously an average. And among the various differences to consider is gender. Several research studies, in fact, suggest that women need more sleep than men. The reason is far from simple: although the exact nature of the relationship between sex, gender and sleep is not yet well understood, we still know that it resides in a combination of biological, cultural and social factors.
Sleep-wake rhythm and circadian cycle
Sleep-wake rhythm is one of the activities organized and controlled by the circadian cycle, i.e., an adaptive mechanism based on hormonal systems to maintain functional balance with respect to external and internal stimuli in the body. It consists of a central biological clock, located in thehypothalamus, and partially independent peripheral biological clocks, which are located at the level of organs and tissues and which control cellular and physiological functions and, consequently, our behaviors over 24 hours. The central clock and peripheral clocks coordinate with each other, and determine the time of all processes.
Women have different circadian rhythms from those of men
Circadian synchronizers are called “zeitgebers” (German word meaning “that which gives time”). Light hitting the retina of the eye is the most powerful synchronizer of the central biological clock, and the production of melatonin, the so-called sleep hormone, secreted by theepiphysis, also depends on it. Other peripheral zeitgebers depend on metabolic, neuronal, or behavioral cues, such asphysical activity anddiet.
Why do women need more sleep?
The different sleep needs related to sex and gender can be associated with both biology, such as genetics and hormones, and culture and society. In fact, women are often lighter sleepers, 40% more likely to suffer from insomnia, and more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with restless legs syndrome. This is because hormonal fluctuations, due to the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause, and an increased susceptibility to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, can expose the female sex to presenting sleep disorders, with symptoms affecting daily life, such asexcessive daytime sleepiness, mood disturbances, and concentration problems.
Women also have different circadian rhythms than men. Some recent research suggests that they may have slightly shorter cycles of body temperature change and melatonin release. These variations could contribute to women’s greater need for sleep and predisposition to more sleep-related problems.
Women are 40 percent more likely to suffer from insomnia than men
Sleep disorders and the social role of women
Although studies show that women tend to sleep slightly more than men, there is some evidence that their sleep quality is lower. This could be due to the fact that, in the family context, they generally devote more time to sick children or family members. Increased caregiving, documented by many sociological surveys, results in many cases in less attention to one’s own needs.
To improve sleep quality, it is important to change some aspects of lifestyle. Any examples? Stick to schedules, expose yourself to sunlight daily, limit caffeine consumption to early in the day and avoid large meals before bedtime. Or: follow a relaxing routine before bed, avoid exposure to light (for example, that of smartphone screens) and keep the bedroom dark, quiet and relatively cool.