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Helping women get better sleep by calming the relentless 'to-do lists' in their heads

Katie Krimitsos is among the majority of American women who have trouble getting healthy sleep, according to a new Gallup survey. Krimitsos launched a podcast called <em>Sleep Meditation for Women</em> to offer some help.
Natalie Champa Jennings
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Natalie Jennings, courtesy of Katie Krimitsos
Katie Krimitsos is among the majority of American women who have trouble getting healthy sleep, according to a new Gallup survey. Krimitsos launched a podcast called Sleep Meditation for Women to offer some help.

When Katie Krimitsos lies awake watching sleepless hours tick by, it's almost always because her mind is wrestling with a mental checklist of things she has to do. In high school, that was made up of homework, tests or a big upcoming sports game.

"I would be wide awake, just my brain completely spinning in chaos until two in the morning," says Krimitsos.

There were periods in adulthood, too, when sleep wouldn't come easily, like when she started a podcasting company in Tampa, or nursed her first daughter eight years ago. "I was already very used to the grainy eyes," she says.

Now 43, Krimitsos says in recent years she found that mounting worries brought those sleepless spells more often. Her mind would spin through "a million, gazillion" details of running a company and a family: paying the electric bill, making dinner and dentist appointments, monitoring the pets' food supply or her parents' health checkups. This checklist never, ever shrank, despite her best efforts, and perpetually chased away her sleep.

"So we feel like there are these enormous boulders that we are carrying on our shoulders that we walk into the bedroom with," she says. "And that's what we're laying down with."

By "we," Krimitsos means herself and the many other women she talks to or works with who complain of fatigue.

Women are one of the most sleep-troubled demographics, according to a recent Gallup survey that found sleep patterns of Americans deteriorating rapidly over the past decade.

"When you look in particular at adult women under the age of 50, that's the group where we're seeing the most steep movement in terms of their rate of sleeping less or feeling less satisfied with their sleep and also their rate of stress," says Gallup senior researcher Sarah Fioroni.

Overall, Americans' sleep is at an all time low, in terms of both quantity and quality.

A majority – 57% – now say they could use more sleep, which is a big jump from a decade ago. It's an acceleration of an ongoing trend, according to the survey. In 1942, 59% of Americans said that they slept 8 hours or more; today, that applies to only 26% of Americans. One in five people, also an all-time high, now sleep fewer than 5 hours a day.

"If you have poor sleep, then it's all things bad," says Gina Marie Mathew, a post-doctoral sleep researcher at Stony Brook Medicine in New York. The Gallup survey did not cite reasons for the rapid decline, but Mathew says her research shows that smartphones keep us — and especially teenagers — up later.

She says sleep, as well as diet and exercise, is considered one of the three pillars of health. Yet American culture devalues rest.

"In terms of structural and policy change, we need to recognize that a lot of these systems that are in place are not conducive to women in particular getting enough sleep or getting the sleep that they need," she says, arguing things like paid family leave and flexible work hours might help women sleep more, and better.

No one person can change a culture that discourages sleep. But when faced with her own sleeplessness, Tampa mom Katie Krimitsos started a podcast called Sleep Meditation for Women, a soothing series of episodes in which she acknowledges and tries to calm the stresses typical of many women.

That podcast alone averages about a million unique listeners a month, and is one of 20 podcasts produced by Krimitsos's firm, Women's Meditation Network.

"Seven of those 20 podcasts are dedicated to sleep in some way, and they make up for 50% of my listenership," Krimitsos notes. "So yeah, it's the biggest pain point."

Krimitsos says she thinks women bear the burdens of a pace of life that keeps accelerating. "Our interpretation of how fast life should be and what we should 'accomplish' or have or do has exponentially increased," she says.

She only started sleeping better, she says, when she deliberately cut back on activities and commitments, both for herself and her two kids. "I feel more satisfied at the end of the day. I feel more fulfilled and I feel more willing to allow things that are not complete to let go."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.