National Sleep Survey Finds Weary Women

If you're yawning as you read this, you're not alone. According to a poll released Tuesday by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), American women are very, very tired. Sixty percent say they don't get enough rest most nights of the week while 43 percent report that daytime sleepiness interferes with their regular activities. The NSF survey, called the 2007 Sleep in America poll, focused on women this year. Eighty percent of those polled say that when they are drowsy during the day, they just try to keep going--often by drinking caffeinated beverages (65 percent have three or more cups of coffee or other caffeinated drinks every day). All women are affected, but the survey found that working mothers (72 percent) and single, working women (68 percent) were the most likely to experience sleep problems such as insomnia.

Most of the poll's conclusions are not new; previous studies have reported that women's sleep problems are widespread. But the poll, conducted annually by the NSF, does provide some interesting insights into how women's lifestyles affect sleep. For example, women may have trouble falling asleep but they're not doing anything to wind down before they go to bed. According to the poll (which surveyed 1,003 women between the ages of 18 and 64), women spend the last hour before bedtime watching television, doing household chores or working in front of a computer. All of these activities make it harder to fall asleep. Most sleep doctors recommend slowing down in that presleep hour by avoiding stressful activities and dimming lights (that means no television or computer screens).

Persistent sleep problems are a major public-health issue because inadequate rest puts women at risk for other troubles. The survey found a clear association between poor sleep and poor mood, a connection backed up by other research. More than half of the women polled (55 percent) reported that they felt unhappy, sad or depressed in the past month and a third said they had recently felt hopeless about the future. Other research has shown that inadequate rest and mood problems create a kind of vicious circle, with each making the other worse.

Women's sleep problems change as their life situations change. In the study, pregnant women spent the most time in bed (an average of eight hours, 14 minutes) but 84 percent reported symptoms of insomnia a few nights a week. In addition, 40 percent say they have signs of a sleep disorder, such as snoring, apnea or restless-leg syndrome. And 30 percent of pregnant women say they rarely or never get adequate rest. But it gets worse when the pregnancy ends. Not surprisingly, women who have just given birth are the most likely to say they rarely or never get a good night's sleep. Even after the kids grow up, it's hard to get rest. Postmenopausal women report the highest incidence (50 percent) of a sleep disorder.

What should women do if they're having trouble keeping their eyes open during the day? The first step, sleep experts say, is to get help from your doctor. So many emotional and physical factors can affect sleep that it's often impossible to make a diagnosis without taking a thorough medical history. Lifestyle changes such as cutting down on caffeine or reducing stress at night can make a huge difference. The bedroom should be cool, dark and quiet with comfortable bedclothes. Nicotine can also interfere with sleep; smokers should quit. If the problem is physical, such as a sleep disorder, doctors have many resources from medication for restless-leg syndrome to mechanical devices for breathing problems. Sometimes, patients spend the night in a sleep lab where doctors study and record every breath and movement during the night to pinpoint where things are going wrong. So don't just yawn; get the help (and the sleep) you need.