fitness · sleep

Sleep is a feminist issue (really…)

For those of us (in the Northern Hemisphere) whose jobs change in accordance with the school year, it’s time to get into gear.  Classes are starting, school busses are rumbling down the roads, and lesson plans and syllabi are scheduling our lives.

Although I let go of summer with the greatest reluctance, the beginning of fall and the new academic year is always exciting, promising newness and variety and pleasure. It’s like a brand-new box of colored pencils, just for me.

Sharpened pencils, in a variety of bright colors.
Sharpened pencils, in a variety of bright colors.

One big downside of the seasonal and work shift is the shift in my sleep schedule. For me, menopausal insomnia always at the ready to obliterate my well-laid morning plans. Lately I’ve had to cancel some morning coffee rides with my friend Pata because I’ve been awake still at 2:30 in the morning. And getting up early anyway means a day in which I can’t concentrate on work tasks with any efficiency.  Blech!

Two cartoon eyes staring in the blackness.
Two cartoon eyes staring in the blackness.

To combat it, I do many of the things you’re supposed to do (dark quiet cool room, bedroom just for sleep, try try try not to look at phone in bed, limit caffeine, blah blah blah). I have intermittent success, punctuated by periods of being awake very late and sleeping in late.

I know, this is supposed to be a sleep no-no. We’re supposed to get up at the same time every day, regardless of how much we slept.

Yeah, that's not happening.
Yeah, that’s not happening.

Getting up early in the morning has always gotten better press than sleeping late. You know the aphorism by this guy (operative word being “guy”):

Benjamin Franklin, credited with the saying "early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Hmphf.
Benjamin Franklin, credited with the saying “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. Hmphf.

Here’s my complaint: some people have different body clocks– we are more active in the evenings, and mostly comatose before noon. I am and have always been one of these people. Yes, for very special occasions (like a 6am bike ride to Niagara Falls with Sam a while back, or a 5am drive to go kayaking in Maine with Janet) I’ll rise early. But this kind of behavior is just not sustainable for me.

And this week the New York Times says maybe it’s okay. Yes– it’s about time.

The article cites Matthew Walker (the author of a new book, “Why We Sleep”), about how sleep patterns vary.

According to Dr. Walker, about 40 percent of the population are morning people, 30 percent are evening people, and the remainder land somewhere in between. “Night owls are not owls by choice,” he writes. “They are bound to a delayed schedule by unavoidable DNA hard wiring. It is not their conscious fault, but rather their genetic fate.”

When night owls are forced to rise early, their prefrontal cortex, which controls sophisticated thought processes and logical reasoning, “remains in a disabled, or ‘offline,’ state,” Dr. Walker writes. “Like a cold engine in an early-morning start, it takes a long time before it warms up to operating temperature.”

Yep, that sounds about right.

Okay, so we now see that sleep patterns may be strongly determined and very hard to overrule. We knew this already. So, what makes sleep a feminist issue? Glad you asked.

There’s a great article in Scientific American on “The Hidden Risks of Poor Sleep in Women”.  Here are some highlights (well, rather lowlights)

  •  Menstruation, onset of puberty, pregnancy and menopause all increase risk of sleep loss in women;
  • In studies, sleep deprivation results in more severe cognitive losses in women than men;
  • The same results have been found in teenaged girls vs. teenaged boys;
  • Women with sleep apnea are much less likely to be diagnosed than men.

In short, there are a lot of reasons to suggest that women are strongly affected by sleep loss, and less likely to be diagnosed with some sleep disorders. Add that into the mix with the facts that:

  • our societies operate on an early-morning schedule;
  • women are very often the persons in households in charge of getting the day going for others;
  • many/most women have jobs with work hours they don’t have control over;
  • a lot of these jobs either start early in the morning or involve shift work.

And what do we get? A lot of sleep-deprived women.

I’m working on a nice, catchy chant for a sleep protest march.  Here’s my first attempt:

Whadda we want?

More control over our sleep!

When do we want it?

Before bedtime!

Women at a protest march, mouths open, shouting or singing or chanting.
Women at a protest march, mouths open, shouting or singing or chanting.

I still have some work to do on it…

Tell me, readers– do your sleep patterns change come fall?  Do you sleep more?  Less? How is your sleep these days?  I’d like to hear from you.











6 thoughts on “Sleep is a feminist issue (really…)

  1. I don’t have children. So my sleep problems are the direct result of sleep disturbance after I had my concussion in bike accident when another cyclist crashed into me. It is a common problem….disrupted sleep patterns in post-concussion, for any gender and at any age.

    For sure perimenopause and menopause, aging also can disrupt. I’m just luckier since it’s light short hot flashes that only happen occasionally while in bed. So the biological cause of lack of sleep as one ages, if I didn’t have my accident, would be the reason for me.

    It’s very individual on the problem of lack of sleep. It’s only this yr. I’ve started to get a few more hrs. of sleep. I consider this progress. My accident was 3 years ago.

    My partner has had life-long narcolepsy and most of the time, he doesn’t feel refreshed at all after sleep because he has never slept fully and then stay awake properly during day.

  2. I will say that when I do sleep better on certain nights, my digestive system seems to work better too. Meaning process a lot more food… there are times I wake up, slightly flushed as if my body went for a mild jog around the block: it was working while I was unconsciously in sleep!!

  3. When I have 8.5 hrs or more of unbroken sleep, I feel like I can rule the world; but now at 52, post-menopausal with warm/hot flushes still, I am more precious about my sleep patterns than just about anything else in my life, including my girlfriend or my son! Afternoon siestas are essential for me- give me 45 mins to an hour and I’m reborn 🙂 G

  4. My husband can fall asleep in minutes, seconds sometimes, and I’m so jealous. He thinks he’s had a bad night sleep if he has to get up once during the night to go to the loo… Ah!!

  5. Sleep also is a feminist issue because women are the nighttime parent-by-default in many families. Breastfeeding during the night contributes to establishing a pattern but also, since in many hetero families, women take most of the parental leave (here in Quebec at least), it seems like there’s a consensus that the employed partner’s sleep is more important than the parent on leave’s sleep… I notice in many families around me that this pattern keeps going even after women go back to work full time.

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