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Women are better sleepers than men — here's why

In honor of Sleep Awareness Week, NBC News’ health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, looks at the latest research on gender and sleep.
Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski.
Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski.Miller Hawkins

My friend Barbara and her husband do everything together. But that stops when it’s time for bed. Barbara’s off to dreamland about two hours before her husband. While she begins her pre-bedtime rituals, he settles in for his favorite shows. Barbara shared that sleep was the only area they were not 100 percent compatible.

Barbara and her husband’s experience isn’t unusual. In fact, according to recent studies, men and women have very different sleep patterns.

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It wasn’t too long ago that people thought the brain “shut off” during sleep to “rest.” Newer research, however, has shown the brain is actually more active during sleep, with ongoing brain cell activity recovering, restoring, processing and repairing. And men and women appear to approach some of these processes differently.

Overall, women are better sleepers than men because they:

-have better sleep quality (more deep sleep than men)

-tend to get more sleep

-tend to fall asleep faster

-tend to have better sleep efficiency (total sleep time in bed, not awake)

This is great news for women!

But despite these encouraging observations, women do report more sleep-related complaints than men. Women worry when they don’t sleep well. According to a 2017 Australian study, women have greater psychological distress with poor sleep than men.

And, with sleep deprivation, women seem to be more affected by the burden of their symptoms compared to men, with more difficulty concentrating and remembering things.

A woman’s lifecycle also has a great impact on sleep patterns: puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause all impact sleep, and need to be addressed. This is often a surprise to “great sleepers’ who suddenly find problems falling or staying asleep.

Women and men have different body clocks

While all humans have an approximate 24-hour body clock (circadian rhythm), studies show slight differences between men and women which can impact sleep patterns over time. A man’s body clock is about 24 hours and 11 minutes – six minutes longer than for women. While six minutes doesn’t seem like much, it can add up nightly to bigger changes. What does this mean for the day/night cycle?

-Men tend to be “night owls” and stay up later and go to bed later.

-Women tend to be “early birds” and go to bed earlier and get up earlier.

-Women appear to need 20 minutes more sleep than men (one theory as to why: women are better multitaskers and do so much at once and they have a longer sleep recovery time)

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So if you’re struggling with your sleep, here are some of my top tips for getting some more zzz’s:

-Establish a regular bedtime and wake-up.

-Create a relaxing ritual before bed

-Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m. (noon if caffeine sensitive)

-Limit alcohol, at least two hours before bedtime

-Keep your sleeping area quiet, cool and dark

Get help when you need it.

Reach out for help to your doctor for any consistent changes in your sleep habits or patterns. Poor sleep can reflect a sleep disorder, or be related to other medical ailments, like anxiety or depression. Treatment options vary from lifestyle change, to medications, or C-pap machines for sleep apnea.

Help is out there - you don’t have to accept the idea that “I’m just a bad sleeper.”

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.