While falling asleep in your partner's arms sounds nice in theory, in practice sharing a bed all night can be very complicated, what with all the moving around and the noises to keep you awake. Previous studies have found that women bear the brunt of this burden, waking up more often than men do when in a shared bed. But new research is showing that all of our suffering might be worth it for the health benefits we derive from sleeping next to someone else. Something to think about next time the snores emanating from the other side of the bed are keeping you awake.
There's no doubt that sharing a sleeping space has any number of downsides. There are the endless blanket wars, and the debates over mattress firmness and room temperature. There's the snoring/rumbling/nose whistling and, of course, the tossing and turning. But as much as these negatives might drive you to seek shut eye in a separate bedroom or even the couch, the Wall Street Journal reports that some sleep experts are finding it might be worth sticking it out in the master bedroom. Past studies have found that there are any number of health benefits to being in a long-term relationship, and these sleep experts think sleeping as a pair could explain most of them. Wendy M. Troxel, an assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, told the WSJ,
Sleep is a critically important health behavior that we know is associated with heart disease and psychiatric well-being. It happens to be this health behavior that we do in couples.
You might think this would mean we should do everything in our power to get as much sleep as possible, i.e. not be awakened every few hours by our partner. But, in fact, one of her studies from 2009 found the opposite:
[W]omen in long-term stable relationships fell asleep more quickly and woke up less during the night than single women or women who lost or gained a partner during the six to eight years of the study.
So why are coupled women sleeping better, despite all of the disruptions coming from the other side of the bed? Well, for now it's only a hypothesis, but the thinking is that sleeping next to someone makes us feel safe and secure, which has tangible health benefits:
[S]hared sleep in healthy relationships may lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Sharing a bed may also reduce cytokines, involved in inflammation, and boost oxytocin, the so-called love hormone that is known to ease anxiety and is produced in the same part of the brain responsible for the sleep-wake cycle.
So even though we might be getting regularly tossed around and woken up, we're feeling the love, so to speak. As Dr. Troxel puts it, "the psychological benefits we get having closeness at night trump the objective costs of sleeping with a partner."
Theoretically the benefits are the same for men, though the costs of sleeping with someone appear to be lower. The same 2007 study that found when women slept in bed with someone else they woke up more during the night also found that men slept the same whether they were in bed with someone or alone. Apparently, according to the researcher who led the study, this has to do with the fact that "women are more sensitive to their environments." Well, a lot of good that does us.
Anyway, what do you do if you want to get the health benefits of having a mattress mate but want to minimize the costs? For starters, you can get a mattress that absorbs motion so you don't feel it when your partner does flips in the night. Of course, some say the sex on these mattresses blows, so you'll have to decide where your priorities lie. You might also try using separate blankets to avoid being robbed of your comforter coverage as you sleep. If you have a partner who is on a different sleep schedule than you, try to compromise so that you both get enough sleep but are still together in bed as much as possible. As for snoring, you can follow all the usual suggestions for reducing it, but it's often an unavoidable reality. In that case, you're just going to have to lie back and think of your cortisol levels.