While sleep is necessary for everyone, there are important differences in sleep for men and women. Historically, sleep research has focused disproportionately on males, leaving gaps in knowledge about sleep differences between sexes.
In recent years, though, sleep science has worked to broaden its understanding of both gender- and sex-based differences in sleep. Studies have cast light on how sleep disorders affect people in distinct ways and how the quantity and quality of sleep may diverge between women and men.
Are Sleep Needs Different For Women and Men?
Do Women and Men Sleep Equally Well?
Growing evidence indicates that, on average, women in the United States get more total sleep each day when counting nightly sleep and daytime naps. In one large study, the average time difference depended on age and ranged from 5 to 28 minutes.
At the same time, women experience more sleep fragmentation and lower quality sleep. Some researchers believe that many women have increased sleep quantity as an attempt to compensate for reduced sleep quality.
It is important to remember that sleep can vary considerably from person to person and is influenced by a wide range of factors.
Why Is Sleep Different Between Men and Women?
There are both sex- and gender-based factors that influence how and why men and women sleep differently.
Sex-based factors relate to underlying biologies including hormone production, sleep cycles, and circadian rhythm. Gender-based factors are connected to social and cultural disparities. These factors may be overlapping and multifaceted, creating a complex set of circumstances that affect individual men and women in unique ways.
Sex-based sleep differences generally begin during puberty for people who menstruate, as starting their menstrual cycle involves significant changes in hormone production. Sex-based factors evolve over time for males and females due to biological changes with aging.
Because they reflect broad social and cultural patterns and norms, gender-based factors may start at an earlier age. Like sex-based factors, they can change over time, exerting dynamic influences on sleep.
Research directly addressing how sleep may differ for transgender and non-binary people is limited.
During an average night of sleep, it is normal to progress through three to five sleep cycles. These cycles generally last from 90 to 120 minutes and are made up of distinct sleep stages. There are four sleep stages, including stages of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.
The first three stages are NREM, and the final stage is REM. The first two NREM stages are lighter sleep while stage 3, known as deep sleep, involves substantial slowing of breathing as well as brain and muscle activity. REM sleep in stage 4 is marked by heightened brain activity and more vivid dreaming.
Each sleep stage contributes to the restorative power of sleep, and how a person moves through sleep cycles is known as sleep architecture.
Some evidence indicates that men and women may have variations in sleep architecture, beginning between the ages of 30 and 40 . One study showed that men in their 30s spent more time in the light sleep stages and less time in deep sleep and REM sleep stages.
Though relatively small, differences in circadian rhythm between men and women can affect the quantity and quality of their sleep.
Circadian rhythms are controlled by the body’s 24-hour internal clock. This clock helps regulate all types of bodily systems and processes, including sleep, by coordinating their function at specific times of the day.
A healthy circadian rhythm promotes a steady sleep routine, helping a person feel awake during daylight hours and sleepy at night. When a person’s actual sleep schedule is not synchronized with their circadian rhythm, it can cause sleep disruptions, daytime sleepiness, and other health problems.
Studies have found differences in circadian rhythms for men and women. While most circadian rhythms are not exactly 24 hours long, womens’ internal clocks are typically a few minutes shorter . Women often have earlier circadian timing, meaning a tendency to both go to bed and wake up earlier.
Hormones are a major driver of sleep differences between men and women. Shifts in hormone production during various points can create significant sleeping problems for women and people assigned female at birth.
- Menstruation: Beginning during puberty, the monthly menstrual cycle involves major changes in the production of hormones, specifically estrogen and progesterone. A drop in the levels of these hormones before the start of a person’s period can cause physical and emotional effects, including disrupted sleep. When these effects are highly disruptive, a person may be diagnosed with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and when symptoms are more severe, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).
- Pregnancy: When a person is pregnant, they experience pronounced hormonal changes that often interfere with sleep. These changes may affect sleep timing and sleep architecture. Hormonal shifts begin in the first trimester, but many pregnant people report sleeping worse during the third trimester. Overall, more than half of pregnant people are believed to experience insomnia, and sleeping problems may persist during the postpartum period.
- Menopause: Menopause occurs when a person who menstruates permanently stops having their period, and it involves fundamental changes in hormone production. Those changes actually begin a few years before menopause during a transitional period known as perimenopause. Sleep problems are very common during perimenopause and menopause and occur because of hormonally induced changes to circadian rhythm as well as bothersome hot flashes and night sweats.
Age-related hormonal shifts also affect men and may impact their sleep. In older men, growth hormone production decreases while levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, tend to increase. Changing levels of these hormones can occur because of poor sleep, but they may also contribute to increased awakenings and reduced sleep quality.
Aging in men can involve decreasing levels of available testosterone. Some studies have found lower testosterone to be associated with worse sleep and greater problems with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a breathing disorder. Evidence suggests that there is a complex relationship involving obesity, sleep, and male hormones, but further research is needed to clarify the connection between testosterone and sleep.
Other Health Issues
Sleep can be disrupted by underlying health problems, many of which do not affect men and women equally.
Men have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and chronic lung problems , both of which can negatively affect sleep. Excess alcohol consumption is more common in men , and can interfere with sleep architecture and reduce sleep quality.
Women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety , a mental health condition that often contributes to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Women are also more likely to experience heartburn and acid reflux , which can worsen overall sleep.
Social and Cultural Norms
Gender-based influences on sleep are closely intertwined with social and cultural norms that have unequal impacts on women and men. Because these norms are complex, they may implicate sleep in multifaceted ways that are not the same for all individuals.
Caregiving is a prime example of a gender-based factor that affects sleep. Women disproportionately serve as informal caregivers for older adults, young children, or ill family members. Caregivers experience more sleep interruptions as well as heightened overall stress that can worsen sleep.
Gender norms play a role in employment opportunities, work schedules, and the division of household obligations. In most cases, researchers have found that these norms place additional strain on women, affecting their sleep patterns and sleep hygiene. That said, these norms can also affect men.
Which Sleep Disorders Are More Common Among Each Sex?
Numerous sleep disorders, including insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome (RLS), affect women and men at different rates.
Women are significantly more likely than men to be diagnosed with insomnia. In total, their lifetime risk for insomnia is 40% higher . The higher rate of insomnia in women is believed to be tied to both gender- and sex-based factors.
In addition to a greater likelihood of having insomnia, women commonly have more complex insomnia that involves multiple symptoms while men typically report only one insomnia symptom.
Restless legs syndrome (RLS), which involves a powerful urge to move the limbs, is another sleep disorder that is more common in women. It is common during pregnancy, which could explain its increased prevalence in women, but there are other potential causes of RLS.
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a dangerous condition of lapsed breathing during sleep, is more common in men. OSA is estimated to affect 15% to 30% of men and 10% to 15% of women. OSA provokes consistent sleep interruptions and is associated with heart problems, depression, and other health issues.
Part of the divergence in the prevalence of OSA in men and women is believed to be related to how doctors diagnose the condition. Women’s symptoms are often interpreted differently , resulting in fewer referrals to specialty sleep clinics where OSA is normally diagnosed.
Does Poor Sleep Affect Women and Men Differently?
Sleep deprivation takes a physical and mental toll. The consequences of insufficient sleep for men and women are similar and reflect only minor differences.People of any gender can suffer serious negative effects if their circadian rhythm is not synchronized with daylight and nighttime. However, differences in circadian timing may make certain people more susceptible to the effects of jet lag or shift work. For example, studies have found an elevated risk of workplace accidents among women working night shifts for an extended period of time.
Do Couples Sleep Differently?
Sleep studies have traditionally focused on individuals, but in everyday life, many adults sleep with a partner. Whether their partner is a man or a woman, this sleeping arrangement can affect nightly rest.
When sleep is analyzed objectively, studies have generally found that people sleep better alone than with a partner. But when surveyed, most people say that their sleep is subjectively improved when they are next to their partner. For heterosexual or same-sex couples, sharing the bed with a partner can communicate a sense of calm and safety that is conducive to sleep.
Of course, not all relationships promote quality sleep. For married couples, research has found that positive relationship characteristics are associated with better sleep, and negative characteristics are tied to poorer sleep . In older adults who often face sleep problems tied to aging, marriages with high levels of mutual support appear to enhance both partners’ sleep.
Sharing a bed can raise sleep challenges for men and women. Men are more likely to snore, so their bed partners may be more likely to have their sleep interrupted. Differences in circadian rhythm and sleep schedules between bed partners may generate additional sleep disruptions. The impact of these factors can vary markedly for any given couple based on their specific circumstances.