The Independent Pharmacy

What Causes Insomnia in Women?

Andy Boysan
Andy BoysanBPharmDirector & Superintendent Pharmacist

Reviewed on 26 Jan 2023

Tossing and turning at night? Finding it impossible to drift off to sleep? Fighting fatigue through the week? You’re likely suffering from insomnia.

Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders — around one-third of Brits will experience its symptoms at least once in their lives. And if you’re female, the likelihood of suffering through a period of insomnia increases — especially later on in life.

If you’re struggling with insomnia, you may be wondering what’s causing it, how you can treat it (and finally get a good night’s sleep!), or why the disorder is more common among females. If that’s the case, read on to find out more about insomnia in women.

What is insomnia?

Latin for ‘sleeplessness’, insomnia is an umbrella term used to describe the inability to sleep. If you regularly suffer from any of the symptoms below, you’re experiencing insomnia:

  • You find it difficult to drift off to sleep
  • You wake up more than once during the night (and then find it hard to get back to sleep)
  • You often lie awake at night
  • You still feel tired after waking up in the morning
  • You find it hard to nap during the day, even if you’re very tired
  • You feel exhausted and irritable during the day
  • You find it hard to concentrate and have low energy throughout the day

There are two types of insomnia. These are:

  • Short-term insomnia: insomnia which lasts less than 3 months
  • Long-term insomnia: insomnia which lasts more than 3 months (often referred to as chronic insomnia)

While the two classifications above are usually sufficient in defining insomnia, specialised sleep clinics may go into further detail when describing the onset, duration, or overall experience of a period of insomnia. Terms they use may include:

  • Sleep Onset Insomnia. Sleep onset insomnia describes difficulty initiating sleep. The majority of people with sleep onset problems cannot fall asleep even after lying in bed for 20-30 minutes.
  • Sleep Maintenance Insomnia. This is an inability to stay asleep through the night. It usually involves waking up at least once during the night and struggling to get back to sleep for at least 20-30 minutes.
  • Early Morning Awakening Insomnia. Those who suffer from early morning awakening insomnia wake up well before they want or intend to in the morning.
  • Mixed Insomnia. Most insomnia cases are classified as mixed because they involve multiple sleep problems overlapping at the same time. All of the other types of insomnia listed above may present themselves in a case of mixed insomnia.
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What causes insomnia?

There are many possible causes for insomnia, which is one of the reasons it can be so tough to treat effectively. Some of the most common causes of insomnia include:

  • Health issues. Mental health conditions, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, an overactive thyroid, restless leg syndrome, or menopause can all trigger insomnia.
  • Environmental factors. Loud noises, an uncomfortable bed, or a room that’s too hot or cold can all contribute to insomnia.
  • Biological factors. Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, recreational drugs, and even some prescription medications can affect your sleeping patterns.
  • Stress. Worrying about factors such as work, finances, health or childcare can keep the mind active at night and make it more difficult to get to sleep.
  • Disrupted sleep schedule. If you’ve travelled on a long flight, you’ll likely suffer the effects of jet lag when you land. Working shifts can also negatively impact your sleeping habits.

Is insomnia more common in women?

While sleep disruption is a prevalent issue among both men and women, numerous studies have definitively shown that insomnia is more common among women. Shockingly, some estimates place the lifetime risk of insomnia at as much as 40% higher for women.

Insomnia may also be experienced differently by women than by men. Women, for example, often report experiencing multiple symptoms of insomnia, whereas men usually report only one.

Why is insomnia more common in women?

Women are more likely to suffer from insomnia than men because of the unique hormonal changes they go through. These include:

  • The menstrual cycle. Particularly in the days leading up to their periods, many women report suffering from insomnia, and those who have premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) are even more likely to report sleeplessness.
  • Pregnancy. The pain, discomfort, leg cramps, and frequent trips to the bathroom often experienced during pregnancy can all lead to sleepless nights, especially in the latter stages.
  • Perimenopause and menopause. Menopause symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats can easily disrupt a woman’s natural sleep cycle.

Furthermore, certain health conditions are more common in women and are known to increase the risk of insomnia. These include:

How does insomnia affect women’s health?

The short-term effects of insomnia include feeling tired, anxious, or irritable. However, over a more extended period of insomnia, you may run into more serious problems, including:

  • Health problems. According to studies, women who have long-term insomnia may be at a greater risk of suffering heart disease, strokes, and obesity, than men with long-term insomnia.
  • Accidents. Whether in the workplace or at home, a lack of sleep leads to an inability to concentrate, and this may cause an accident. In older women, this is particularly dangerous, as even a knock or bump could end in a trip to the hospital.
  • Mental health issues. A lack of sleep can often be associated with mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

How can women get better sleep?

Insomnia can be treated, but you must bear in mind that sleeplessness is often a symptom of something deeper. If you’re yet to identify the root cause, then it’s a good idea to put the following tips into practice before seeking medication or visiting your GP.

  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Gradually, this will ‘train’ your brain to feel tired at the same time.
  • Do something relaxing for around an hour before you head to bed. Take a long bath, read a book, or listen to some calm music.
  • Try to avoid watching TV or using a computer or smartphone for at least an hour before you go to bed, as staring at a screen can interrupt your sleep cycle.
  • Try to make your bedroom as dark as possible. Draw the curtains, turn off all the lights and wear a sleep mask if necessary.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough exercise every day. The NHS recommends doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week. This could be a brisk walk, a bike ride, or even mowing the lawn.
  • Try not to eat too much late in the evening, as this may cause you to feel uncomfortable. Worse still, you may experience heartburn or indigestion, so opt for a light snack or avoid eating at all before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine or alcohol late in the afternoon or in the evening, as these can all affect your ability to fall asleep as well as the quality of sleep you get.
  • Make sure your mattress, pillows, and covers are comfortable. Open a window or use a fan if you’re too hot, and wear thick pyjamas or use a hot water bottle if you’re too cold.

Over-the-counter insomnia treatments

Sleeping aids are available in tablet or liquid form from most pharmacies and may help you to get a good night’s rest. Some contain a mixture of natural ingredients such as valerian, lavender, or melatonin, while others, like Nytol, are an antihistamine.

However, medication will only treat the surface-level symptoms of insomnia. They shouldn’t be relied upon for sleep — you should only use them for a maximum of 1 or 2 weeks. If you’re still struggling to switch off, it’s always best to contact your GP.

When to see your GP about insomnia

If you’re suffering from long-term insomnia or your sleepless nights are causing significant disruption to your daily routine, contact your GP. The treatment you receive will be unique to the type of insomnia you’re experiencing.

For example, if your doctor believes that the issue is psychological, you may be referred to a cognitive behavioural therapist. This will help you to positively alter the thoughts and behaviours that are causing your insomnia.

You may also be referred to a specialist sleep clinic if your doctor believes you’re suffering from another sleep disorder such as sleep apnoea.

Sleeping pills are rarely prescribed nowadays — the combined risks of dependency and addiction will often far outweigh any potential benefits to the patient. If they’re prescribed, it will usually only be for a few days or weeks at the very most.

While insomnia is more common in women — and the effects can often be very disruptive — it can usually be addressed by making some fairly minor lifestyle changes. If your insomnia is becoming a long-term issue which is getting in the way of your life, however, speak to your GP about your available options.

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