That’s right. Research shows that women have more complex brains than men, use more of their brains than men, and therefore need more sleep to achieve adequate brain recovery. In spite of their more complex brains, the average woman needs only 20 minutes more sleep than an age-comparable man.
Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University states that the current research shows women need 20 minutes of extra shut-eye than men because of the complexity and flexibility of their brains. “Women tend to multitask – they do lots at once and are flexible – and so they use more of their actual brain than men do. Because of that, their sleep need is greater,” says Horne.
He explains that the primary function of sleep for the brain is recovery and repair. The cortex is the part of your brain that’s responsible for thought memory, language, creativity and other types of higher brain function. When you move into deep sleep, this part of the brain withdraws from the senses and goes into rest, recovery and repair mode. It follows that the more you use your brain, the more demanding the tasks you perform, and the more you multitask, the more sleep your brain needs to recover.
Horne states that “the average adult needs between six and eight hours of sleep a night, but individual needs differ greatly. What is important is that people have enough sleep to ensure they do not feel excessively sleepy during the day.”
There are consequences to not getting enough sleep. In women, these can include feelings of depression, psychological distress, rage and hostility.
A 2013 study by North Carolina’s Duke University found that women are at far greater risk of poor mental and physical health because of poor sleep than men in their age ranges. The results of the research showed that women who were short on sleep or slept poorly were at a significantly higher risk of chronic depression and developing a range of psychological problems. These women were also more prone to heart disease and extra clotting factors in their blood, which can, in some instances, lead to strokes.
The presence of inflammation markers was also a significant finding, as this can indicate a distinct risk for developing a range of health problems. Additionally, inflammation markers are strongly linked to pain, so if a woman is short on sleep and therefore has higher levels of inflammation markers, she can literally wake up in physical pain.
Notably, the men participating in the study did not show any increased risk of developing physical or psychological ailments. According to the study, this indicates that a man’s health is not closely linked to how much he sleeps.
Although women need more sleep than men, the research tells us that, in fact, it’s women who most experience a lack of sleep. While there are a number of possible reasons for this, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine says that this is, at least in part, because men tend to sleep more heavily than women, and so are less disturbed by environmental influences.
One of the most common causes of sleep disturbance for both men and women is a poor mattress. A worn-out, weak or generally poor mattress can cause significant sleep disruption along with widespread pain and general feelings of ill health. For women, pregnancy is often a time of sleep disturbance due to the added weight and the position of the baby. And, of course, once baby arrives, the mother is exceptionally sensitive to the sound of the baby’s cry.
A study from the University of Surrey found that 18 percent of women identify as experiencing poor sleep at least five nights a week. The same study showed that only 8 percent of men identified as experiencing the same level of sleep disturbance.
It’s important to note that these studies are relevant but do, perhaps, make a few generalizations. Sleep is an individual experience, and each of us has entirely different needs. Similarly, not all men struggle to multitask. More than anything, it’s crucial that you personally get enough sleep to wake up feeling refreshed, with a clear head, ready to face the day.
If you’re perpetually tired, there is a number of factors to consider. Are you sleeping for long enough? Is your mattress adequately supportive? Are you getting enough daily exercise? You don’t have to be a gym buddy, but there are plenty of studies that show that getting regular exercise – even a 30-minute walk every day – can dramatically improve your sleep habits, along with your general health. Are you refraining from drinking caffeine, or at least switching to decaf in the evening? Are you limiting your alcohol consumption appropriately? How good is your diet? Do you refrain from using electronics (your tablet, smartphone, game console and computer) at least one hour before bed? There are plenty of things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep, whether you’re male or female.