Why Can't Women Sleep? Part I: Building Better Sleep Basics

Why Can't Women Sleep? Part I: Building Better Sleep Basics
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If you are a woman who has trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, you're in wondrous - and populous - company.

According to the National Sleep Foundation's 2007 Sleep in America poll, "67% of women say they frequently experience a sleep problem. Additionally, 43% say that daytime sleepiness interferes with their daily activities."

Add up those figures and you'll end up with a larger-than-life percentage -- one that truly illustrates the emotional and physical pain of not-sleeping.

What is sleep? Why can't women sleep? How can we sleep better?

Sleep: What is it?

Sleep was a non-thing, I thought. The opposite of being awake. But sleep is an activity. How else could so many otherwise-accomplished chicks "not be able to do it well?"

For the purposes of this post, I'm going to define sleep as, "a state of physical and emotional rest over time". I'm going to define rest as, "a worry-free state."

Worry-free...ah! Now, that's a state I'd love to live in. How about you?

But taking a quick look back to early human days, a womanly state of calm does not seem to be our natural historical domain.

Successful cavewomen outwitted deadly predators using rapid response techniques to deal with ever-unpredictable enemies (the classic "fight or flight"). Their remaining time was spent cooking, tending, gestating, birthing, raising, reaping...lather/rinse/repeat and dying. If that sounds exhausting, it was. Life was a daily exercise in adrenaline overload.

Our neolithic grand-mères' life was relatively short. On the other hand, they probably didn't find themselves watching re-runs of cave paintings at 4 am, thanks to an adrenaline on-off switch that had frazzled into a constant anxiety-drip.

And let's not forget modern life's "normal" female chemical tangos.

"There are specific times women tend to have trouble sleeping," says Shelby Freedman Harris, PsyD, Director, Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program in the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center.

From our twenties into our fifties (which is to say, way-generally speaking, from first pregnancy age through menopause), women's bodies are being remodeled by hormones on a regularly irregular basis. Some hormone shifts are chillaxing. Others can be sleep robbers.

Low progesterone, a common condition among peri-menopausal and menopausal women can "make your brain feel like your finger's in a light socket," says Sheilagh Weymouth, D.C., P.C.

Add a "You-can-do-it-all!" culture into the mix, and you've got a psychological and biochemical recipe for Up At Night.

Luckily, there are ways to work with the situation we've inherited.

Get your head out of your bed.

Picture this scenario: You went to bed at 11 pm. Woke up at 2. Stayed up til 4. Slept til 5. And now? You have a huge presentation at work at 9.

"Oh my God!!!" you might think. "I'm gonna screw it up big-time!!!!"

It seems responsible to stress about the effects of your sleep-deficient night. And yes, a body that's frazzled by lack o' sleep is more prone to fueling a freak-out. No blame there.

But, Dr. Harris advises, the first step to better sleep is to rethink our worries. The things we're freaking out about feel real. But are they really happening?

We worry about botching the big presentation, for instance. Was that "accurate or not?" Did we forget the kids at school (or the dog at doggy daycare)? If the answer is no, there's really nothing to worry about, really....other than our worrisome attachment to worrying.

At the risk of sounding like a bedtime Buddhist, separating the illusion from the essence of not sleeping does sound like a sensible antidote to some forms of day-after-cruddy night suffering. Tonight is another night. Powered (or powered down) by the knowledge that I can focus on a good night's sleep (as opposed to a bad day's weariness), I could have a head-start on the zzzz's I need.

If one must fret, Dr. Harris advises us to schedule a 20-30 minute worry session into our day. After a few minutes, many patients find they've run out of reasons to worry.

Feed Your Brain

Dr. Weymouth, a chiropractor and ex-insomniac, practices "Functional Medicine" whose aim is to answer the why's, what's and how's of health. When a woman appears in her office complaining of poor sleep - and most do - she asks what they're eating.

"If you're not sleeping well at night, you're probably not eating as well as you think you are," she says.

Women who wake during the night may not feel hungry. But they may well be starved for nourishment their brain needs to make it calmly through the night.

"If we don't have enough fuel, the body asks the adrenal glands to make cortisol," Dr. Weymouth explains. Which, as I understand it, is like making fight-or-flight in a bottle that just happens to be your trying-to-sleep body.

To up your odds of sleeping well, Dr. Weymouth suggests eating breakfast within an hour of waking, have lunch within four hours of breakfast (and if you can't, have a snack, and then your meal).

If three to four hours pass between dinner and bedtime, eat a snack before bed made up of fat, protein and carbohydrate - part of an apple with a small amount of nut butter, cheese and crackers, a fork-or-two of dinner leftovers.

Orgasms can be a great natural sleep aid for women who find them relaxing. ("If you want to run around cleaning your closet afterward, then you have your sex in the morning," Weymouth says.)

Lemon balm, lavender and linden teas can have a calming effect on the nervous system, as can 2-3 minute rounds of slow deep breathing.

Insomnia, of course, is very real. So, where is the line between sleeping badly and sleep disorders?

Dr. Harris offers the 30/30 rule to assess your situation.

"Does it take me more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, or am I up for more than 30 minutes during the night - and has this been going on for more than 30 days?"

if you've answered yes to all three questions, it's time to see a caring sleep behavior pro -- if you haven't already.

In my next Women and Sleep post: Five incredibly low-tech tips for better sleep - and the real women who've tried them.

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