Hormones' effect on sleep gets a new look in study

By Lydia Denworth

New York Times News Service

The debate on hormone replacement therapy has centered on its effects on heart disease and cancer, but at a recent medical conference in Seattle, researchers presented a hormone study that focused on a different question entirely. They were talking about sleep.

The researchers, from Stanford University, found that estrogen improved the breathing of postmenopausal women who have apnea. Once thought to be rare in women, apnea is a potentially life-threatening disease involving repeated breathing pauses during sleep.

The study, by Tracy Kuo, a postdoctoral fellow, and Dr. Rachel Manber, the director of the insomnia program at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Center, was small, but its significance goes beyond its size. It is one of a number of recent investigations into the effect of sex hormones on sleep: how they disturb it and how they might improve it.


Sleep medicine, which itself is attracting new attention, is finding that women's sleep issues are distinct from men's and that hormones may explain some of the difference.

Many women complain of poor sleep. In a poll released in April by the National Sleep Foundation, women were more likely than men to feel they were not getting enough sleep (28 percent versus 19 percent), to report daytime sleepiness (20 percent versus 13 percent) and to have had symptoms of insomnia (63 percent versus 54 percent).

Now there is wider recognition that such complaints are real, said Dr. Joyce Walsleben, the director of the New York University School of Medicine Sleep Disorders Center. "Instead of being told, 'You're just crazy, dear,' someone may actually listen," she said.

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