Gender and Sleep

The Biological Sleep Clock Differs in Men and Women

A new study published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), September issue, has found that women are more likely to suffer from sleep disturbances than men are.

Many women have noticed that their sleep patterns are more commonly disrupted than men’s.  For example, women are more likely to have an insomnia diagnosis than men are.  Is it possible that there is a link between your sex or gender and the biological clock that regulates sleep?

According to this new study published by Dr. Diane B. Boivin and colleagues at McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry, as well as the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, the answer is yes.  There is a connection to gender and how the biological sleep clock functions.

In this research, Dr. Boivin first controlled for hormonal contraceptive use and menstrual cycles in women.  After adjusting for these aspects, researchers found that the body’s internal clock definitely affects alertness and sleep differently in men than women.

Dr. Boivin, who works out of Douglas Institute and acts as the director of the Centre for Study and Treatment of Circadian Rhythms, noted that even on a similar sleep schedule, women were more likely to fall asleep and wake up earlier than their male counterparts.  The reasoning, researchers state, is that women’s biological clocks seem to be on a more “Eastern time zone” schedule.

Furthermore, Dr. Boivin adds to her report from the study that the differences in sex seen in this research allows for better understanding of why women suffer from sleep disturbances more than men.

The Study

This experiment consisted of 15 men and 11 women, whose variations in alertness and sleep (regulated by body clock) were measured.  The women participants were on normal cycles and were evaluated during two different phases of their menstrual cycle.  This was done and treated as a critical point in the study because Dr. Boivin had previously done research that showed sleep phase was affected by menstrual cycle, body temperature, and biological rhythms.

Of note, none of the participants experienced sleep problems during the course of the study; however, the results help give perspective into why women are more affected by sleep disturbance than men, why they wake up earlier in the morning, and why they feel more tired after what seemed to be a full night’s sleep.  Furthermore, it is notable that men are more alert at night than women.

This study is suggestive that women may be unsuitable for nightshift work, biologically speaking.  Additional research is needed to confirm the theory and explore this matter further in order to develop proper treatment and interventions that are tailored to gender.

Millions of people in America suffer from sleep disturbances, especially insomnia.  A major consequence of this is that about 15% of adults with sleep disturbances also suffer from functional problems, which could negatively impact productivity and put employers and employees at risk of accident.


Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.


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