Are there gender differences in objective and subjective sleep measures? A study of insomniacs and healthy controls

Depress Anxiety. 2003;17(3):162-72. doi: 10.1002/da.10101.


It is well known that insomnia is more frequent in women than in men throughout all age groups. In this respect insomnia resembles other psychiatric disorders that occur more frequently in women such as anxiety and depressive disorders. Since insomnia is frequently a symptom of anxiety and depression, it remains an open question whether the comorbidity with psychiatric disorders fully explains the gender differences in the prevalence of insomnia or whether gender influences sleep independently from psychiatric conditions. We analyzed sleep measures of patients diagnosed with a primary insomnia (n=86) and of an age- and sex-matched healthy control group (n=86) by polysomnography; additionally, subjective rating scales were available for 70 patients and 54 controls matched for mean age and sex ratio. Surprisingly, none of the sleep continuity measures (sleep duration, sleep efficiency, arousal index, and wake%), nor slow wave or REM sleep % showed significant gender differences in both insomniacs and healthy controls. Also, subjective estimates of sleep quality were comparable in both sexes. As expected, insomniacs strongly differed from the control group in all subjective measures of sleep. Polysomnography showed significantly reduced sleep duration and efficiency, increased arousal index, and slightly, but significantly, less REM sleep in the insomniacs as compared to the healthy controls. These studies indicate that gender seems to have, if any, relatively little influence on sleep per se. We hypothesize that the clear gender differences in the prevalence of insomnia are caused predominantly by gender differences in the prevalence of anxiety and depression. Primary insomnia may be, at least in a part of the cases, a subclinical or subthreshold form of anxiety or depression.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anxiety Disorders / diagnosis
  • Anxiety Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis
  • Depressive Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Polysomnography
  • Prevalence
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / diagnosis
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Sleep, REM / physiology*