Sleeping Beauty? If only. For many women—especially those who train hard—a nice, long slumber is increasingly hard to come by, and it's messing up their lives.
"Sleep is now considered the third pillar of health and wellness, to go along with nutrition and exercise," says Bill Fish, a certified sleep science coach and co-founder of the sleep-focused website Tuck.com. "There is no question that society has swung a bit to focus more on the importance of sleep recently, but too much of that focus has been on quantity instead of quality. Just because we are in bed for eight hours doesn't mean we are getting eight hours of quality sleep."
Why Women Are Often Shortchanged on Shut-Eye
Women are 40 percent more likely than men to develop insomnia, and research has shown that sleep disturbances will predictably increase during specific stages in a woman's life: puberty, menstruation and the week before, pregnancy, menopause, and postmenopause. About one-third of women lose sleep due to cramps, bloating, and headaches from menstruation and PMS, and as many as 61 percent of postmenopausal women are unsatisfied with their sleep and experience insomnia symptoms regularly.
"The predictable differences in sleep between males and females across their lifespan is most likely due to the influence that the female gonadotropic hormones and their milestones have on sleep," explains Kelly Benson, a performance sleep coach and founder of Performance Sleep Method. "Yet biological changes are just the beginning of sleep disturbances for women. Socioeconomic, psychosocial, and comorbid health issues, as well as cultural and ethnic differences, also influence the quality of sleep."
For instance, women report less leisure time than men, likely due to the increased household and family obligations that more often fall on them. Benson argues that this results in more stress and a greater need for sleep at night. As women age, she continues, they're more likely to experience insomnia because of natural age-related changes in sleep and hormonal shifts. Other sleep issues, including obstructive sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, can come into play as well.
Furthermore, psychosocial issues, such as depression and anxiety, are commonly associated with insomnia and disrupted sleep. Research shows that women tend to cope with stressful life events by worrying and using avoidance, both of which increase the likelihood of depression and subsequently insomnia. In fact, women, in general, experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders that can contribute to insomnia starting from puberty. Persistent, chronic insomnia will then dramatically increase the likelihood of developing a major depressive disorder, leading to a vicious cycle of depression and insomnia.
Finally, women's sleep is more likely to be interrupted by a snoring male, a crying baby, and longer circadian rhythms than those of men. Often, this leads to the need for daytime naps, which can make nighttime sleep even more elusive.
The Role Played by Overtraining and Undereating
Countless studies link exercise with improved sleep quality and the ability to fall asleep more quickly. There's a point of diminishing returns, however. Poor sleep is a classic marker of overtraining; that is, training above your body's ability to recover. Exhaustive, high-intensity activity can interfere with REM sleep, especially in women, and the effect is compounded by restricting calories.
"If you are participating in high-intensity exercise and lowering calories, there is a markedly higher incidence of sleep disturbances," says Rachel MacPherson of RadicalStrength.ca, ACE-certified personal trainer. "Insomnia can result from not getting enough nutrition to help recover from exercise."
As a result, your weight-loss efforts will eventually stall, and so will your performance. If you do all-out workouts such as HIIT cardio, CrossFit, high-volume strength training, or endurance sports, make sure you eat enough nutrient-dense food to fuel your training and recovery—even if it's more than what's written into your meal plan. Also, schedule in plenty of recovery days. Putting in quality training volume while taking care of your body will ultimately lead to a healthier body composition.
The Health Dangers of Skimping on Sleep
Sleep deprivation puts you at risk for myriad health issues, says Bart Wolbers, master of clinical health science and chief science writer at AlexFergus.com. These include:
- Heart disease. Simply missing a few hours of sleep at night consistently over a period of years increases your blood pressure, and higher blood pressure is one of the best predictors of heart disease.
- Mental impairment. Sleep deprivation inhibits many abilities regulated by the prefrontal cortex (the "CEO of your brain"), including working memory (your ability to hold multiple pieces of information in your mind at any given moment), decision making, self-control, focus and attention, and long-term memory. Your risk for brain conditions such as Alzheimer's also increases with sleep loss.
- Weight gain. Sleeping fewer hours and having lower sleep quality is linked with an increased obesity risk. The culprit? A lowered ability for your body's cells to take up glucose; higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone; and heightened levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone.
- Emotional deficiencies. By losing sleep, your quality of life decreases, your ability to cope with stress is impaired, and your emotional distress rises.
- Slower workout recovery. Human growth hormone (HGH) is released during deep sleep, which promotes tissue repair and recovery after training sessions. Even one night of sleep loss will cause a sharp decline in the secretion of HGH. This will not only lead to a loss of muscle mass over time, but also a reduction in exercise capacity.
Advanced Sleep Hygiene
You might have already heard the term "sleep hygiene." This refers to lifestyle habits that help you sleep better, such as limiting alcohol and caffeine, turning down the thermostat at night, sticking to a consistent bedtime routine, and avoiding blue light from your phone and TV a few hours before bed.
These four tips can make a world of difference when it comes to quality sleep. If you've been there, done that, and you're still tossing and turning, add these techniques:
- Breathe through your nose. "The breath is the most important aspect of sleep and life," says Anil Rama, MD, who serves as adjunct clinical faculty at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine and medical director and founder of Kaiser Permanente's tertiary sleep medicine laboratory. "How we get that breath is every bit as important as the breath itself. When taken through the nose, air is humidified, filtered, sterilized, warmed, slowed, and oxygenated. The mind and body are calm, and sleep is enriched."
- Listen to bedtime stories. Remember the magic of bedtime stories during childhood? "Try listening to an audio novel before bedtime," says Jodi De Luca, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in Erie, Colorado. "The rhythm of the narrator's voice can help to lull you to sleep by slowing down brainwave activity."
- Watch your supplements. "A B-complex supplement or a B6 vitamin has been shown to increase nightmares and make dreams more vivid," says nutritionist Lisa Richards, author of "The Candida Diet." Take these supplements earlier in the day. (On the other hand, there are some supplements, such as ZMA, that are better taken at night.)
- Simplify your schedule. There's a lot competing for your time. Trim the fat so you can sleep more. Say no to social commitments you're not that into (or leave early), rein in your Netflix-bingeing, step back from social media, and learn to be OK with a clean-ish house. We all want to have full lives, but there are only so many hours in a day. Prioritize sleep, and you'll be more present for everything else you do.
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