Drained of energy and deprived of sleep? Not getting enough rest decreases your quality of life and increases your health risks. Read on to learn why women don't get enough shut-eye and how non-prescription sleep strategies can help.
Hormones wreak havoc on women's slumber
According to Dr Carol Ash, medical director of Sleep for Life in Hillsborough, New Jersey, there are several reasons women are deprived of sound sleep.
“One [reason] is biological – the hormonal shifts and physical changes [throughout a woman's life] can interrupt natural patterns of sleep,” she explains. “Pregnancy makes sleep difficult, especially in advanced stages when it's difficult to find a comfortable sleep position.”
Once the baby is born, Dr Ash says women continue to struggle with sleep because of the baby needing to be fed, suffering from colic, or teething in the middle of the night. And the sleepless nights don't stop there. “Later in life, [menopausal] women experience hot flashes and night sweats,” she adds.
Get older and get less sleep
Though sleepless women largely outnumber sleepless men, Dr Ash says both genders have a harder time getting to sleep as they get older. “Just as eyesight or hearing begin to fail, the delicate mechanism in the brain and body that triggers and sustains sleep also begins to deteriorate,” she explains.
However, if you are thinking sleeping pills are an easy answer, think again. “I advise patients to first take a close look at their habits and if they are doing things during the day that will promote sleep at night,” adds Dr Ash. She also suggests making sure there isn't a psychological issue at hand that is causing anxiety or stress.
Women are tireless – but tired
How often do you stay up late packing school lunches, doing the ironing, or paying the bills because you think you won't have time the next day?
Your tireless quest to “take care of everything” could be robbing you of the precious sleep you need – and deserve – to stop feeling chronically exhausted.
“Another reason that women don't get enough sleep is that they are jugglers, always trying to fit in another load of laundry or a bit more work before they go to bed. They don't give themselves enough time to sleep and enough time to unwind before sleep,” says Dr Ash.
While you may be succeeding at being Super Woman or Super Mom, you are super sacrificing the quantity as well as quality of the sleep your mind and body absolutely need.
Health risks of not getting enough sleep
Would you believe that not getting enough sleep can lead to depression, obesity, and danger to yourself as well as others?
Dr Ash warns that if you are continually getting fewer than seven to nine hours of sleep a night, your sleep debt can cause a range of problems. “Sleep debt can change mood, leading to depression and irritability. It can cause obesity, because we tend to eat more when we're tired, and it can cause accidents,” she explains.
Just think about how many days you feel groggy at the wheel when you are driving to work or when you pick your kids up from school. “Going without sleep for 18 hours is the equivalent of being drunk,” says Dr Ash, about the extent of cognitive impairment from lack of sleep.
In addition, even your health will eventually suffer from sleep debt. Research indicates that people reporting insomnia are more likely to also report being diagnosed with other medical conditions.
Several studies show that chronic lack of sleep can increase your risk for psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety disorders. And, further, not getting enough sleep is also associated with a higher risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Strategies for getting more sleep
So what is a sleep deprived woman to do? Prioritize getting your rest – start today by incorporating a few of these sleep strategies.
1. Stay on schedule
Dr Ash recommends getting up and going to sleep at the same time, even on weekends. This doesn't mean going to bed at midnight and waking up at 4:30 am. Shoot for seven hours of sleep.
2. Sleep in the dark
Sounds obvious, but even illuminated clocks or small lights on electronics can keep you awake or disturb your sleep. Dr Ash suggests getting all electronics out of your bedroom. Pull the shades and turn off all lights before getting in bed.
3. Watch your temperature
Not only create a restful atmosphere by turning out the lights, make sure your room is at a cool temperature, too. Being too hot can cause sleep disturbances. Wear clothes that are comfortable but not too warm. Get a fan or sleep with only a sheet if necessary.
4. Give yourself an hour to wind down
Don't work right up until bed. “Allow yourself an hour to unwind before sleep,” says Dr Ash. She suggests a restful activity, such as reading or a soak in the tub – bathtub or hot tub. “A hot tub before bed is useful in two ways: It raises the body temperature, and as the body temperature gradually lowers when you go to bed, that promotes sleepiness. Also, if you do it every night, it is a ritual and it becomes a signal to your brain that says 'Sleep is coming and you can relax now.'”
5. Watch what you eat and drink
Dr Ash says “No caffeine or alcohol after 5:00 pm. Likewise, don't eat a large meal late in the day – your body will be too busy digesting instead of sleeping. Additionally, quit smoking or at least don't smoke later in the day because nicotine, like coffee, is a nervous system stimulant.
6. Exercise, but do it early
Dr Ash recommends exercising but not right before bed. Get your workout early in the day or at least three hours before bedtime. Exercise promotes sleep but when done too close to bedtime, can actually interfere with getting to sleep.
7. Manage your stress
Stress can literally suck the life out of you, especially when it prevents you from getting enough quality rest. Put your stressors in check by proactively dealing with them, instead of letting them keep you up at night. Communicate with your family, journal your distress, change your perception of stressful situations or try therapy to help you effectively cope and get some sleep.
8. Rule out a sleep disorder
Sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or other sleep-related medical conditions may keep you up no matter how well-intended you try to sleep. Dr Ash says only a home sleep study or test at a sleep center can determine if you have a sleep disorder.
9. Naps – for new moms
Though Dr Ash generally discourages napping, she does recommend brief naps of no more than 40 minutes for moms with newborns. “Their sleep schedule is turned upside down, so they need to sleep when they can,” she adds. But, be sure your naps are no longer than 40 minutes. “After that, you're in a deep phase of sleep and [will] wake up groggy rather than refreshed.”
10. Try something alternative
Alternative methods such as aromatherapy, acupuncture, and massage can help induce sleep. You can also try sleep-inducing programs like Pzizz.com, that use soundtracks of music or voice to relax your mind and body and ease you into slumber.