Spotlight on Women's Health

Dr. Michael Twery

What You Should Know About Sleep

April 09, 2018

It can be tough to make time for sleep, especially when you’re trying to juggle family, friends, work, and your other commitments. But sleep is worth prioritizing. Dr. Michael Twery, the director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at NHLBI, shares why sleep is important, how much you need, and what you should know about sleep disorders.

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How much sleep do women need each night?

Adults need a regular schedule of seven to eight hours in bed each night, and they need good quality sleep. Scientists have discovered that while many people may feel awake after getting less sleep, sleeping for shorter periods of time or following an irregular sleep schedule does not help your organs work together at their best. How long you sleep, your schedule, and the quality of sleep all contribute to achieving your best health and well-being. Not getting enough sleep is associated with diseases such as diabetes, depression, obesity, and heart disease.

Does this number change as women age?

No. While your ability to find time for sleep may vary based on your family, job, and care-taking responsibilities, the average need for sleep does not change with age.

What should women know about sleep disorders, and what should they do if they think they have a problem?

If you feel that excessive daytime sleepiness is getting in the way of your daytime activities despite getting enough sleep, you should consider discussing your symptoms with your doctor. I suggest keeping a daily diary to track when you're in bed, when you wake at night, and your use of medications, alcohol, and nicotine products. This may provide clues that your doctor can use to understand what's going on and how to help you.

Other symptoms to include in a sleep diary would be difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep; feeling awake but unable to move; vivid dreams; and waking up at night because of itchy feelings, loud snoring, or gasping for air. Getting evaluated for sleep problems may be especially important if you have high blood pressure or diabetes or if you're at risk of having a stroke. Also, tell your doctor about family members who were told by a doctor that they have a sleep disorder.

Why is sleep important for good health?

Recent scientific advances have revealed that sleep plays a role in the health of nearly every cell in our bodies. Irregular sleep schedules, not getting enough sleep, and poor-quality sleep also interfere with how well our cells and organs work together.

Frequent lack of sleep can affect our ability to fight off some infections, cope with stress, and regulate metabolism. Sleep also contributes to brain health by shaping memories and restoring emotional energy that can influence relationships and motivation. Current research is exploring whether frequent lack of sleep might be involved in brain disorders linked to stress or memory loss.

What should women know about taking medicines to help them sleep?

I encourage women to avoid trying to self-medicate. If you frequently have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor to come up with a plan that will work for you.

Are there habits that get in the way of good sleep?

Yes. Caffeine can interfere with the natural chemistry of feeling sleepy, even if you had a cup of coffee five hours before bedtime. Drinking alcohol before bed can disturb the pattern and quality of your sleep. Also, watching television, texting, and reading in bed are habits that can get in the way of going to sleep. Focusing on these activities can become a mental routine that interferes with how the brain transitions from being awake to sleeping. Light from these activities also weakens your body's ability to release hormones that prepare your body for sleep.

What steps can women take to get better sleep?

Go to sleep at the same time each night. Set aside time to prepare for sleep, and give yourself seven undisturbed hours in bed. Taking time to relax, such as with a warm bath, can help your body prepare for sleep. Lastly, sleeping in a dark, quiet, and cool room can help you sleep.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Like eating well and exercising, getting plenty of sleep can help you achieve your best for your family and career, and it can improve your well-being for years to come. Sleep health is a fundamental requirement of life - it's not an option.

Get more tips for better sleep and learn more about sleep basics.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.