Go to Sleep! (And Get More of It)

Men and women sleep differently. We asked a local doc to weigh in with tips for both sexes.

Considering the endless tossing and turning I did last night, it’s funny that a coworker should send me this Wall Street Journal story about sleep patterns in men and women. Apparently women, on the whole, sleep more deeply than men and wake up fewer times throughout the course of the night. But more men report feeling more satisfied with the amount and quality of sleep they get than women.

A study  released earlier this year also found that more men actually have circadian periods—you know, the ticking of their internal body clocks—that last longer than 24 hours, so that’s why they’re more apt to be night owls and sleep in later. The majority of women had circadian periods that were shorter than 24 hours, which is why we ladies tend to go to bed and awake earlier.

Reports the Wall Street Journal, “For both sexes, a circadian period that is out of sync with the 24-hour clock can result in sleep deprivation as the week goes on.”

And that’s a serious problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls sleep deprivation a “public health epidemic.” The Institute of Medicine estimates that between 50 and 70 million US adults have some sort of sleep or wakefulness disorder. Sleep deprivation can lead to everything from trouble with concentration or memory to falling asleep while driving—scary stuff.

Dr. Philip Gehrman, clinical director of Penn’s behavioral sleep medicine program, says most adults need about eight hours of sleep a night, but the exact number varies from person to person. “You basically need enough to feel rested the next day,” he says. A good sign is whether you’re able to wake up feeling refreshed with your alarm—no hitting the snooze button.

If your main problem is falling asleep, Gehrman recommends beginning to unwind about an hour before you’d like to hit the sack. There are lots of methods you could try—a mug of herbal tea, a warm bath, reading a book, doing yoga—but the idea is to engage in activities that make you feel relaxed, rather than stimulated.

Computers and smartphones are stimulants for a lot of people, so it’s a good idea to limit screen time during your unwinding hour. You can watch TV, but make sure you’re not tuned to a murder mystery—that can keep you up, too.

Some people swear by melatonin, a naturally-occuring hormone that regulates sleep patterns that can be bought over-the-counter in pill form. Gehrman says they can be useful as long as you use them correctly. The wrong way is to take a melatonin tablet 30 minutes before bed. “It’s generally ineffective when used as a sleeping pill,” he says. Rather, take the supplement three to four hours before bed to allow it time to adjust your biological clock. He recommends consulting a doctor before starting a melatonin regimen.

If waking up is your main issue, Gehrman says your problem lies in either your quality or quantity of sleep. It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but generally speaking, if you feel better on the weekends when you get more sleep, that’s probably an indicator of quantity—you want to up your hours on the weekdays, too. If you feel terrible no matter how long you sleep, you probably have a quality issue—maybe your body’s not falling into its deepest, most restful sleep stages—and it could be an indicator of a more serious sleep disorder, like sleep apnea. It’s worth getting checked out.

Speaking of sleeping in on the weekends, I wanted to know: Does the weekend catch-up actually work? “No,” Gehrman told me, adding that you need four to six nights of good sleep in a row to get back to top performance. “After just two nights, you’re not going to start the next week much better off than you were before.”