How Women Can Get More Sleep

Did you get enough sleep last night? Probably not. "We are a nation of sleep-deprived women," says Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour magazine. While everyone in college burns the candle at both ends, Leive says women's sleep problems only get worse with the arrival of kids and careers. After a while, she says, you begin to think that it's selfish to put your own need for sleep ahead of all of your family's needs and all the items on your to-do list. It's a self-defeating strategy because when you're tired, you can't accomplish as much as you can when you're rested. You never win.

Leive and Arianna Huffington are out to change that dynamic through Sleep Challenge 2010, a joint venture between Glamour and The Huffington Post that began at the beginning of the year and will continue through the end of the month. Both women are blogging on their sites about their own experiences and including lots of helpful tips for readers who want to join in. Leive said she and Huffington came up with the idea when they met last summer on a panel about women and power at Maria Shriver's Women's Conference in California. They agreed that fatigue was the one complaint all women shared—no matter where they stood on the corporate ladder. Leive suggested that the two challenge each other to see who could do the best job of improving their sleep.

It was "half in jest," Leive says, but the idea began to seem better and better the more they thought about it. Studies show that adults who don't get enough sleep increase their risk of heart disease and mood disorders. They're more likely to get into car accidents. Their concentration and thinking is impaired. And they're even more likely to gain weight. "I was shocked when I started reading the research to find the links between sleep and virtually every other health problem," Leive says. "I know that I could reduce my risk of a million different diseases by eating better and exercising, but sometimes those things are hard. Sleep's easy."

Well, maybe not so easy, according to the blog posts. It's clear that "challenge" is the right word for their effort. In one of her first posts, Huffington wrote about how she was tempted to stay up late talking to her daughter, who was home from college. "She, of course, can sleep all morning if she wants," Huffington wrote. "I have to be up at 6:30." Huffington tried to resolve the situation by having a "chat-filled dinner," going to a movie with her daughter, and then going to a coffee house for a caffeine-free "nightcap."

For Leive, one of her most difficult moments so far was getting out of bed on the weekend close to her weekday wake-up time—a strategy sleep doctors recommend. "Going to bed at 11 p.m. this Saturday night and then getting up at 6:30 a.m. the next morning made me feel a little like a third-grader," Leive wrote. "Plus, I felt irrationally annoyed at my husband, who got to loll in bed until all hours (well, OK, 9)." But, she admits, she felt "awesome" after getting the extra rest.

Recent nights have been less successful. Huffington, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote that she "fell off the wagon" on day 11 when two friends from Washington were in town. "Everyone was having such a great time no one wanted it to end—including me," she wrote. "My compatriot Zorba the Greek suddenly popped into my head, reminding me that life is about living each moment fully. 'You can't let anything,' Zorba whispered in my ear, 'even something as positive as the sleep challenge, get in the way of fully embracing the moment.' So I surrendered to my inner Zorba." Huffington says she paid for staying up until 2:30 a.m. by being exhausted the next afternoon.

Leive had a bad night as well. After a later-than-usual dinner with friends, she tried to get a full night's rest but woke up in the middle of the night and found herself "mentally scrolling through my to-do list." She couldn't get back to sleep as she worried about unfinished tasks. One problem on that night, she said, might have been the glass of wine she had at dinner. Alcohol can disrupt sleep if you drink it too close to bedtime.

Even with this less-than-perfect performance, there's no question that Leive and Huffington are publicizing a major health issue for women. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, women's sleep tends to be lighter and more easily disturbed than men's. Women are also more likely to wake up saying they don't feel rested even after they've had a full night of sleep. Young working mothers have a particularly difficult time getting the rest they need.

Insomnia may seem like an inevitable side effect of modern life, but it can also be a sign that something else is wrong. "You should take it seriously if it has been going on for two to three weeks," says Dr. Mary Susan Esther, a sleep doctor at Charlotte Eye Ear Nose & Throat Associates in North Carolina and a past president of the AASM. "If you're really struggling, then you need to see a physician." Sleep problems could be triggered by a mood disorder like depression (just as lack of sleep makes depression worse). Other possible causes include medication you might be taking, hormonal changes, or just bad sleep habits.

If there's nothing physically wrong, Esther offers five tips to get your sleep back on track.

1. Have a standard wake-up time. You can't always control the hour that you actually fall asleep, but you can make yourself get up at the same time every day. If you stick to that schedule, eventually you should find yourself falling asleep more easily. That's something both Leive and Huffington have been doing. And that also means that you have to get up early on weekends as well, as Leive did so painfully. Esther says your weekend wake-up time should be no more than an hour later than your regular wake-up time. "The most common night to have problems sleeping is Sunday night because you're worried about Monday and you slept in on Sunday," Esther says.

2. Make sure you have downtime before bed. Your body needs a signal that it's almost time for sleep. Most parents do this with their kids by giving them a bath, then reading them a story—a regular bedtime routine. Adults need this as well, so shut off computers and TVs at least an hour before you want to be asleep. Lowering the lights in the house helps as well; this signals your brain that it's the end of the day.

3. Avoid caffeine after noon. Yes, it's hard—especially with a Starbucks on every corner. But it takes many hours for the caffeine to work through your system and if you have a cup of coffee or tea at dinner, it will interfere with your ability to get to sleep. That also applies to soft drinks that contain caffeine—and even chocolate.

4. Watch your alcohol consumption. If you drink too close to bedtime, you will not sleep well because as you metabolize alcohol, your sleep is interrupted. Esther says you generally metabolize alcohol at a rate of about an ounce an hour. That means if you drink a four-ounce glass of wine at 8 p.m., you won't finish metabolizing it until midnight.

5. Make sleep a priority. You need to schedule sleep time just like everything else. It's not expendable.

It all sounds simple, but as Leive and Huffington have found, reforming long-held sleep habits takes real effort. Leive admits she's a little uncertain about what will happen when the month-long challenge ends. "I am sure I will have a relapse when there's a string of nights where I want to be up until 2 in the morning," she says. But, she adds, "I hope some of it will stick."