We already know that sleep issues are connected to personal characteristics such as our gender, our relationships, and our jobs. Connections like these led researchers to question whether sexual orientation had any influence on sleep. Their findings were published in the journal Sleep Health in 2017.
Researchers used data collected from the 2013-2015 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). The NHIS is a nationally representative health survey of the civilian United States population. It operates throughout the year and results are released annually. For this study, researchers combined three years of data, covering 46,909 adult men and 56,080 adult women.
Collecting the data
Sexual orientation was determined by responses to a survey question that asked men to identify as gay, straight, or bisexual. Women were asked to identify as lesbian/gay, straight, or bisexual. Participants who reported their sexual orientation as “something else” or who couldn’t answer the question were excluded from the study.
Sleep duration was measured by asking participants how many hours of sleep they got in a 24-hour period. Results were combined with the age of the participant to determine whether they were getting enough sleep according to current guidelines.
Sleep quality was measured by asking participants how often they had trouble:
- Falling asleep
- Staying asleep
- Feeling unrested after waking
They were also asked whether they took medication for sleep.
Sleep duration and sleep quality differences by gender
The study found no significant differences between men and women when it came to meeting current guidelines for sleep duration - but women were far more likely to experience poor sleep quality.
Compared to men, women were more likely to have trouble falling asleep (17.8 percent compared to 12 percent) and staying asleep (24.2 percent compared to 17.7), and to wake feeling unrested (40.4 percent compared to 32.5 percent).
Almost one in 10 women reported using sleeping pills on at least four occasions over the previous week compared to just 5.8 percent of men.
Male sexual orientation and sleep quality
When researchers included data on sexual orientation, some significant differences were found between gay and straight men.
Compared to straight men, gay men were more likely to report:
- Difficulty falling asleep (17.5 percent compared to 11.9 percent)
- Feeling unrested after waking (41.3 percent compared to 32.3 percent)
- Taking sleep medication (14.7 percent compared to 5.6 percent)
No significant differences were found among men when it came to measuring sleep duration against current guidelines or difficulty staying asleep. Similarly, no significant differences were found when comparing bisexual men to straight men in any of the measures. With that being said, bisexual men were found to be less likely than gay men to take sleeping pills.
Female sexual orientation and sleep quality
Researchers found a similar pattern of significant differences between straight women and gay or bisexual women.
Compared to straight women, gay/lesbian women were more likely to report:
- Difficulty falling asleep (22.8 percent compared to 17.5 percent)
- Difficulty staying asleep (30.3 percent compared to 23.9 percent)
- Feeling unrested after waking (47.4 percent compared to 40.1 percent)
- Taking sleep medication (14.7 percent compared to nine percent)
Sleep issues appeared to be even more prevalent in bisexual women. Roughly one in three bisexual women reported difficulty falling asleep and difficulty staying asleep, while half reported feeling unrested after waking.
No significant differences were found among women when measuring sleep duration against recommended guidelines.
What is the link between sexual orientation and sleep?
We still don’t know. The authors of the study pointed to prior research that found gay men, gay women, and bisexual women were more likely to report psychological distress and smoking - two factors that have been linked to poor sleep quality. More research is needed to confirm the association between sexual orientation and poor sleep quality and to help us understand why such a link may exist.
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Martin is the creator of Insomnia Land’s free insomnia sleep training. His online course uses CBT techniques to teach participants how to sleep better without relying on sleeping pills. More than 5,000 insomniacs have completed his course and 97 percent of graduates say they would recommend it to a friend.