Too busy to sleep? 

New research says women find it harder to sleep than men do and they need more sleep in the first place. But we're not going to get it until lack of sleep stops being a badge of honour, says Lauren Laverne

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By Lauren Laverne on

The list of feminist issues is long. So long. Sometimes I think it might be growing, then I remember it just seems that way because it just used to read “1. Everything” and now we’re actually able to break it down a bit. I mention this because sleep is now a feminist issue. Sleep! Who knew that the Land of Nod was a patriarchy? Arianna Huffington, apparently. She called it first a couple of years ago in her memoir-cum-self-help-book, Thrive, but now science backs up her claim. 

New research from the University of Surrey has revealed that one in five women has a bad night’s sleep five days a week, compared with eight per cent of men. There are biological reasons for this (hormonal fluctuations disrupt sleep during menstruation, menopause and pregnancy), but it’s also because women are more prone to problems like insomnia, anxiety and depression. In addition, the researchers discovered that women need around 20 minutes more shut-eye than men in the first place, because we use our brains more than they do during the day (this scientific finding is presented without comment). 

Technology has turned our homes from places where we can recharge into places we charge our phones

These physical disadvantages are coupled with a culture that can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Technology has turned our homes from places where we can recharge into places we charge our phones. Our bedrooms are now shopping, working and social zones, which isn’t all bad (who would forego the pleasure of an occasional late-night sales binge or a laugh with friends on Facebook?), but browsing Instagram until silly o’clock is not conducive to a restful night. Before you know it, it’s 1am and you’ve exchanged a decent kip for pointless knowledge of Kendall Jenner’s contouring regime. You’ll also find it’s much harder to drop off when you do decide to put your phone down – it’s thought that the blue spectrum light emitted by mobiles is the most disruptive to sleep.

On top of our bad habits, we have a bad attitude. We take pride in our tiredness – it’s a badge of honour that shows how busy, important and hardworking we are. New parents become entrenched in “tiredness wars” over who is most exhausted, which is terrible for your relationship (though all the arguing does mean you won’t get pregnant again, so it might buy you a few nights' sleep in the long run. Swings and roundabouts).

A few broken nights won’t kill you, of course, but long-term lack of sleep can have really unpleasant consequences, including depression, diabetes, weight gain, a compromised immune system, high blood pressure, impaired memory and slower thought processes.

On top of our bad habits, we have a bad attitude. We take pride in our tiredness – it’s a badge of honour that shows how busy, important and hardworking we are

So, what to do? Experts talk about the importance of good “sleep hygiene”, which sounds suspiciously trendy (like “clean eating”, brrr), but actually dates back to the 1930s and is all very sensible. We’re supposed to forego stimulants like alcohol and caffeine, and avoid overeating and bright light before bed. We should have a relaxing, consistent bedtime routine and associate bed with sleep – so no working/surfing/tweeting. It’s important to exercise (you will sleep better), but not too late in the day, as this can make it hard to drop off. It sounds a bit boring, but it’s infinitely preferable to making yourself ill. 

A couple of years ago, I was the tiredest I’ve ever been. I was surfing a wave of seven years of broken nights and pre-dawn wake-ups, and juggling a career that meant I sometimes did 20-hour days. Eventually my immune system was so depressed I developed a bad case of shingles (the chicken pox virus you have as a kid reactivating as a kind of bionic version of itself). In my case, it was on my face and around my left eye (not great for someone who works on TV). I remember the trip to hospital very well. My entire face was swollen. A handsome Irish doctor dilated my pupils with special drops, so that he could examine the damage to my eyes. I looked like Mr Spoon on E that day, and ended up needing glasses. It was clear something needed to change. 

I put sleep back on my list of priorities, and I’m much healthier and happier for it. I was pretty strict at first – I set an alert on my mobile to beep an hour before I was due to go to bed, to remind myself to start winding down, switch off my laptop and generally do all the pottering-around, ready-for-tomorrow stuff that tells my brain the day is done. I don’t need that these days, but I do keep up that habit. I try not to look at my phone or laptop in bed, and I've exchanged my Kindle for a paper book – preferably something funny. As the saying goes, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”

Picture: Stocksy

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Lauren Laverne

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