Video: Separate beds: Good or bad?

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msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/10/2007 12:28:32 PM ET 2007-10-10T16:28:32

Lori Taylor would love to sleep next to her husband — if his snoring and thrashing weren’t guaranteed to keep her awake all night.

Still, the 48-year-old New York City teacher has mixed feelings about choosing to sleep in separate beds.

“There’s something nice about the warmth of a human body next to you, even if you’re not sleeping as well,” says Taylor, who has slept apart from her husband off and on for the last five of her 11-year marriage. “When you’re in bed together you’re in a little private space on your own time. Cuddling up on the couch with the phone ringing isn’t the same.”

Taylor's trouble getting a good night's rest next to her husband isn't unusual.Women sleep less soundly when they share a bed with a romantic partner, a study published this month in Sleep and Biological Rhythms found. Surprisingly, men actually sleep better when they sleep next to a woman.

There are a lot more couples sleeping separately than you might guess, says Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis and a professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. An estimated 23 percent of American couples sleep apart, according to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation. A Canadian study reported that 34 percent of couples hit the sack separately.

Women may have a tougher time sharing a bed because men are much more likely to be snorers, says Mahowald. And often, it’s the woman who has to move to a different bed — or room, in some cases — when the decibel level of her husband's snoring crescendos to an intolerable level.

But snoring may not be the only problem for women who’d like to spoon all through the night.

Device measured movements
For the study, Austrian researchers asked 10 committed couples, ages 21 to 31, to wear a small device called an actigraph on their wrists while they slept at home. An actigraph, which resembles a wristwatch, keeps track of a person’s movements during the night and chronicles their periods of sleep and wakefulness.

The actigraphs showed that the women’s sleep was more fragmented on nights when they shared a bed, than when they slept alone. The differences weren’t huge, but they were significant.

The researchers speculated that women's fretful sleep might be caused by brain wiring differences between men and women. Women tend to be lighter sleepers because they historically have been the ones caring for infants, the researchers suggested.

The actigraph's measurements would most likely have been even more distinct if the couples in the study had been older, says sleep expert Michael Perlis. That’s because snoring becomes more of an issue as men age, explains Perlis, director of the Sleep Research Lab and an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.

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Psychologist Wendy Troxel isn’t surprised to see that men do better when sleeping in a shared bed. Studies have shown that men are very dependent on close relationships — contrary to popular stereotypes, says Troxel, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied how the quality of a relationship affects overall health and sleep in men and women.

In general, men show much clearer benefits from committed relationships, Troxel says. “My research shows that married men are much happier and healthier than unmarried men," she adds. “The findings are much less consistent with women.”

Willing to sacrifice for a snuggle
Noting that a good night’s sleep is important to daytime functioning, the Austrian researchers suggested that couples might consider the possible deleterious effects of sleeping together and choose separate beds instead.

But Perlis and other sleep experts aren’t convinced that this is the best plan.

“At the end of the day, there’s something essentially comforting about this behavior — so much so that people are sometimes willing to sacrifice perfect sleep to get it,” Perlis says. “I’d be hard pressed to imagine recommending with a cheerful heart for people to sleep apart.”

Perlis and other experts suggest couples look for solutions to snoring and other sleep problems before turning to separate beds. “I’d recommend ear plugs, whatever it takes,” Perlis says. “That’s also partly a personal judgment.”

Ear plugs have helped Taylor and her husband sleep through the night on vacations when the couple needed to share a bed. But, she says, they don’t help enough to make a shared bed work at home.

“I’d like him to go get a sleep study,” she adds. “But so far he’s been unwilling to do that.”

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