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Science of Sleep Disorders

Affecting 50 to 70 million Americans, sleep disorders are a major health and economic drain, but especially so for women.

Sleep problems are more widely reported in women than men, and women are 1.4 times more likely to experience insomnia than men. To address the specifics of sex differences in sleep disorders, the Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR) hosted the congressional briefing, "Sleep Disorders and You: How challenges to sleep impact every aspect of your life" on April 11.

Martha Nolan, Vice President of Public Policy at SWHR, provided opening remarks and introduced the first panelist, Michael J. Twery, PhD, Director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health (NIH), who explained that shift work, long work hours, and untreated and chronic sleep disorders are major contributors to America’s sleep deficiency.

Sleep disorders “affect all racial groups and genders,” said Twery. They “increase the risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, mortality, hypertension, and obesity.” Sleep controls our memory filters, affects our dreams, inspirations, and emotional responses, so not getting enough can be very detrimental to our health.

Helene A. Emsellem, MD, Director of The Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders, discussed specific sex differences in sleep disorders. Because of the different hormonal levels in different trimesters, pregnancy can either increase or decrease sleepiness, and raises the risk of Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) in the third trimester. Emsellem noted “35-40% of menopausal women report sleep problems as well.”

She further explained that a lack of sleep causes cognitive impairment, difficulty focusing, impaired memory, delayed visual reaction time, and impaired motor function. Men and women should set aside the requisite 7-9 hours for sleep to maintain high cognitive function and motor abilities. Emsellem suggests exercise, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and other healthy lifestyle habits to help fall and stay asleep.

The final panelist, Ronald Farkas, MD, PhD, Clinical Team Leader, Division of Neurology Products at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provided information on sleep drugs and dosing requirements that account for gender differences. Farkas said, “To support FDA approval of drugs for sleep disorders (and most disorders), data is required about potential gender differences in safety and efficacy.”

Zolpidem, the most popular type of sleep drug, has a known gender difference. It’s “known that women clear zolpidem from the body more slowly than men,” said Farkas. Because of this difference, women are prescribed a lower dose than men (1.75 mg for women vs. 3.5 mg for men). According to Farkas, FDA is always reevaluating sleep drugs and data to better serve the public.

Understanding the science of sleep and the influence of sex differences will lead to healthier and more effective treatments for all.

For more information on the Society for Women’s Health Research please contact Rachel Griffith at 202-496-5001 or

The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR), a national non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., is widely recognized as the thought leader in women’s health research, particularly how sex differences impact health. SWHR’s mission is to improve the health of all women through advocacy, education and research. Visit SWHR’s website at for more information.

Rachel Griffith | Newswise Science News
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