Insomnia and Gender

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Gayle Green’s article,  Why We Can’t Sleep: It’s Not Just in Our Heads, from the  Spring 2008 issue of Ms. Magazine posits a biological basis for insomnia:

A 2007 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 67 percent of women frequently experience sleep problems…[y]et  75 percent of sleep research has been done on men, and until recently the researchers have been primarily men.  

As with other conditions that affect more women than men and are not well understood, there’s a tendency to assume that the problem is psychological….There’s no question that stress can lead to insomnia, and that women are under stress…. But to overestimate the effects of social and psychological factors is to miss the crucial connections between female physiology and sleep.

Before puberty, girls do not sleep worse than boys. At adolescence, though, girls become approximately two and a half times more likely than boys to have insomnia….As we’re exposed to monthly dips and surges in estrogen and progesterone throughout our reproductive years, the stress system stays primed for hyperreactivity, which gives us greater vulnerability to stress-related disorders.  

Menopause is another trouble spot for sleep; at this point, women’s sleep complaints more than double….

And yet, contrary to popular conception, midlife may be a less stressful time for women than their 20s. Women’s depression rates actually go down after menopause, even as insomnia rates go up:which should unseat the knee-jerk equation of insomnia with depression. Many of us are on a more even psychological keel in our 50s and 60s than we were when we were younger:except that we can’t sleep.

Menopause is a biological as well as psychosocial event….One reason hormonal fluctuations disrupt sleep is that they raise temperature. Body temperature tends to decline as sleep comes on, so anything that keeps it elevated:an electric blanket, a hot room, work or vigorous exercise too close to bedtime: may inhibit sleep. ***

But it’s always easier to psychologize the problem:tell us we’re stressed or depressed and pass the buck back to us:than to do the hard work of finding out what’s really going on. Since insomnia disproportionately affects women, its neglect by researchers is our neglect.

The full article is available  here.  

-Bridget Crawford

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