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Are Men's Sleep Issues Causing a Health Crisis for Women?

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Ashley C. desperately wants to sleep in the same bed as her husband—but it's just not possible. In the four years that the couple has been together, one of them has usually ended up on the couch.

The middle-of-the-night separation isn't by choice. Her husband suffers from sleep apnea, and while he is getting treatment, the snoring that results from his condition keeps Ashley in a pissed-off state of wakefulness. "We've tried earplugs, white-noise machines, me elbowing him constantly and telling him to be quiet, but nothing seems to work," says the 33-year-old from San Diego. "We usually start off in bed together—I'm a snuggler—but inevitably one of us ends up sleeping in another room. It's kind of miserable, and has led to lots of sleepless nights." (Related: This Is the Actual Definition of a "Good Night's Sleep")

Around the same time that Ashley began losing sleep, she developed headaches, and often felt irritable, which led to fights with her husband. In her mind, the problem was emotional, Ashley says. So she called a marriage therapist. Women's health experts say she should have also called a medical doctor.

That's because the impact sleep problems can have on your relationship may be overshadowing the bigger, scarier issue of shacking up with a heavy breather: A snoring partner may be negatively influencing your health—and it's often overlooked.

"Sleep apnea is often referred to as the disease of listeners," says Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., a senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation in Pittsburgh. And with men suffering from sleep apnea at a rate of two to one compared to women, Troxel says, those listeners tend to be female. "Research shows that female partners of snorers are three times more likely to suffer from insomnia than partners of non-snorers," she adds. That creates a sleep gap where a woman's sleep is more disproportionately affected than a man's would be. (Truth: Women suffer from sleep issues, too. However, restless leg syndrome and biological differences tend to be the common culprits, which typically don't disrupt a partner's slumber. And when women are diagnosed with sleep apnea, the symptoms tend to be different from those of men, and often don't involve snoring.)

Even more worrisome: When insomnia appears as a result of a partner's sleeping troubles, it tends to get drowned out by louder issues, like the hit your relationship takes or the sleep apnea itself. "When my husband's snoring was at its worst, I knew I wasn't getting enough rest," Ashley says. "But I still looked at it as his problem—he is the one who needs to see a doctor. It never occurred to me that I was suffering from a medical issue at that point, too, and that I could get help." (FYI, thanks to brand-new technology, getting a definitive sleep apnea diagnosis could be as easy as putting on a bandage.)

So how exactly does sharing a set of sheets with a snorer affect you? Well, no one exactly knows—and that's part of the problem.

Troxel explains that there isn't a ton of data on the topic since the health care industry has a history of snoozing on women's health care issues. "In general, there is a lack of awareness around women's sleep health," says Monica Mallampalli, Ph.D., a scientific expert on women's health in Ellicott City, MD. "In the 1970s, women of reproductive age were barred from participating in clinical trials [out of fear that researchers risked damaging a fetus if the woman became pregnant during a study]. This resulted in only men participating and the data generated from these studies were applied to women. But a one-size-fits-all assumption is not true—as a result, women's health has suffered."

Think of it like smoking: Everyone was taught that smoking is bad, but it took awhile to put attention on the fact that it was hurting people around the smoker, too. Currently, the knowledge that women need to seek treatment for their snoring-provoked insomnia doesn't really exist. We talk about how things like electronics, an uncomfortable bed, and stress can affect our sleep, but we don't necessarily talk about our partners as a source of insomnia. When a male partner comes in for the treatment of sleep apnea, "there is a need among physicians to educate their patients, and spouses, on good sleep health," Mallampalli says.

What we do know is that when you don't snooze, you lose. Sleep deprivation affects the function of nearly every part of the body, and has been linked to heart problems, an increase in stress hormones, obesity, and depression. That's just the short list. So if you have a partner who snores, make some noise with your health care provider to see how you need to be treated.

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