Monday, March 17, 2008

To Sleep, Perchance to Heal

I really, really love to sleep. Sure, there are more thrilling things you can do in bed - and in general, they're worth losing sleep over - but in an ideal world that'd still leave plenty of time for eight hours of nightly sleep. Or nine! I haven't regularly snoozed that much since the last millennium, which coincides with when I was expecting my first-born.

At a recent meeting with my women's studies colleagues, I mentioned to a couple of them who also have young kids that one of the hidden costs of breastfeeding - which I was grateful to be able to do, don't get me wrong - is that it sets you up for many years of sleep deprivation. All of them nodded vigorously. (N=3, so take this as the anecdote that it is.)

Sure, you can do things to mitigate this. Co-sleeping while my babies were really young helped; so did moving them to a bed of their own when they didn't need such frequent feedings. Their father willingly sat up with our restless first-born in the wee hours during those first crazy weeks. But if you're the milk source, even preparing some bottles for your partner to give isn't going to help, because you still need to pump or you won't sleep.

Most of all, though, you become so attuned to that baby's cry that you just can't sleep through it, no matter how helpful your partner. In the meantime, your partner is practicing ignoring the racket as much as possible. Because there's no sense in everyone being trashed come morning. And then your baby grows, but the toddler who takes his place through some strange process of alien child-swapping has bad dreams; the preschooler wets the bed; the grader-schooler has more bad dreams; the teenager stumbles in long after midnight. And though the dairy truck drove away years ago, the mother is still usually the first one woken.

This turns out to be a nasty irony of nature. Women are more likely to be sleep deprived due to their biological and social roles. At the same time, we're more likely to suffer ill health than men at equal levels of deprivation.

Carly Weeks of the Toronto Globe and Mail (via Broadsheet) reports on a host of ills that preferentially hit sleep-deprived women:
Researchers from the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., compared sleep patterns in a group of men and women and found that women who slept poorly had significantly higher levels of biomarkers that are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Women who slept poorly were also much more likely to experience hostility, distress, depression and anger, according to the study.
The study, conducted by Edward Suarez, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke, was just published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, in case you wish to track down the original article.

The women most at risk were those who typically took a half-hour or longer to fall asleep. According to the summary of Suarez's study in Science Daily:
For women, poor sleep was associated with higher levels of C-reactive protein and interleukin-6, measures of inflammation that have been associated with increased risk of heart disease, and higher levels of insulin. The results were so dramatic that of those women considered poor sleepers, 33 per cent had C-reactive protein levels associated with high risk of heart disease, says Suarez.
Why haven't we heard more about such risks? Gender and sleep is a relatively new field of study:
Suarez says that while women are twice as likely as men to report problems with sleep, most sleep studies in the past have focused on men, a phenomenon that has been slowly changing in recent years.
But other recent studies have produced similar findings. According to another Science Daily article, a study released last fall by researchers at the University of Warwick also found women to be at elevated risk of heart disease due to sleep problems.
The researchers found that the those women in the study group who slept less than or equal to 5 hours a night were twice as likely to suffer from hypertension than women who slept for the more recommended seven hours or more a night. The researchers found no difference between men sleeping less than 5 hours and those sleeping 7 hours or more.
At the five-hours or less mark, women are also more likely than men to gain weight irrespective of diet and exercise. Women whose sleep is broken are more likely to suffer from spontaneous pain. This last study didn't compare women to men, but its findings may be pertinent to those with fibromyalgia and other pain syndromes, who are disproportionately women. And broken sleep is exactly what new - and not-so-new - mothers commonly report, as do many women undergoing menopause.

I'm sure I could find more examples, but I'm tired, thanks partly to my ongoing caffeine deficit. I might just watch an old episode of Monk and turn in early, for once. Or I would, if only my son the Tiger would finally go to sleep ...

Sleep-deprived kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?


Smirking Cat said...

A very timely post, as my sleep has suffered the last few weeks so seriously that I have to fight falling asleep while commuting to work.

Good lord, how many times have studies been done with just male participants, and then researchers act surprised when there are different results with female participants? Like women are an afterthought...

Sungold said...

That's scary bad, Smirking Cat. Can you do something to reduce stress (I'm assuming that's a factor, because when isn't it?) before you actually do fall asleep behind the wheel?

Women *have* historically been an afterthought in all but the most "well, duh" fields - breast cancer, childbirth, etc. And even there, much of the research didn't even conform to the standards of the day. I could rant on about this all night. But since the mid-1990s, there's been a massive shift in thinking, and women are not so often excluded anymore. The change is still ongoing, but it's real and I can't imagine anyone turning back the clock.