Health / 17.12.2014

Why sleep is a feminist issue

By Roisin Dervish-O'Kane
Women, we're sucking at sleep. Here's why we need to sort it out


When was the last time you woke up naturally and sprang out of bed feeling refreshed? If you’re like most women in the UK, chances are, it’s been a while. Recent research by the Mental Health Foundation found one-third of adults in the UK experience insomnia – and it’s women who are hit hardest. The Great British Sleep Survey showed our sleep quality tends to be 10 per cent lower than our male compatriots, and we make up a large proportion of insomniacs. ‘Statistics reveal around 70 per cent of insomniacs are female,’ says sleep therapist Dr Guy Meadows ( But what’s behind it?

It’s your hormones

Yes, raising your risk of insomnia can be added to the list of things you can blame your complex system of chemical messengers for. ‘If you are stressed on going to bed, you risk elevating your cortisol (the waking hormone) levels and decreasing your melatonin (the sleeping hormone) levels,’ explains Meadows. And thanks to our ever-changing hormonal cycles, they can have knock-on effects on sleep throughout our lives. Great.

We’re wired, not tired

It doesn’t help that we’re always ‘on’, with leaving work at the office door replaced by answering emails in bed. ‘Light at night confuses the body clock, the circadian rhythms that govern our sleep-wake cycle,’ explains Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University. ‘The circadian pacemaker interprets light to mean “daytime”, and starts to readapt to the new “daytime” and shifts its timing.’ No wonder, we can’t sleep.

We worry more…

The sleep crisis is disproportionately impacting women because we’re generally more prone to anxiety. ‘Your brain interprets stress as a threat to your wellbeing, so your brain’s amygdala (the bit which plays a role in the processing of emotions) floods your system with stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, to keep you alert,’ says Meadows. Sadly, our brains can’t distinguish between physical, life-threatening stress or that caused by tomorrow’s client presentation.

…and bad sleep makes it worse

On the flip side, poor sleep increases your risk of depression and anxiety up to five times, according to data from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health. ‘You’re four times more likely to have relationship problems, because it lowers your ability to regulate your emotions,’ says Dr Meadows. ‘If you have insomnia, you may become anxious about things you’d otherwise not worry about and fly off the handle much more easily.’

Our bodies are paying the price

Ignoring our body clock puts stress on our bodies that can be linked to everything from a shoddy immune system to a string of failed diets. ‘Research shows poor sleep leads to elevated levels of hunger hormone ghrelin, and lower levels of leptin, linked with feelings of satiety,’ says Meadows. A study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine also found sleeplessness leads to a surge in white blood cells as the body attempts to boost the immune system. Inflammation in the blood can also increase by 25 per cent, along with raised blood pressure and heart rate, following a sub-six hour snooze, according to the American Heart Foundation.

If you struggle to switch-off and get to sleep, exercise may be in order. Why not join a netball club?

Time to act

Insomnia isn’t just lying awake for hours as soon as you get into bed. Difficulty drifting off or waking in the morning – even if there’s been no interruption to your sleep pattern – are all doctor-recognized insomnia subtypes. See your GP if you think you have sleep problems as underlying conditions like depression or anxiety might need to be ruled out.

To get better ZZZ’s tonight, try our favourite herbal sleep helpers and keep an eye on the @healthymag Twitter page for sleepy time tips and tricks. Just no tweeting from bed, okay?

Why sleep is a feminist issue
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Why sleep is a feminist issue
If you're like most women in the UK, chances are, it’s been awhile since you woke up refreshed and full of vim. Here's why this affects women especially.
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Healthy Magazine
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