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Open Access Review

One's sex, sleep, and posttraumatic stress disorder

Ihori Kobayashi1*, Nancy Cowdin12 and Thomas A Mellman1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry, Howard University, 530 College St. NW, Washington, DC, 20060, USA

2 Department of Neuroscience, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA

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Biology of Sex Differences 2012, 3:29  doi:10.1186/2042-6410-3-29

Published: 31 December 2012

Abstract

Women are approximately twice as likely as men to develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after trauma exposure. Mechanisms underlying this difference are not well understood. Although sleep is recognized to have a critical role in PTSD and physical and psychological health more generally, research into the role of sleep in PTSD sex differences has been only recent. In this article, we review both animal and human studies relevant to sex differences in sleep and PTSD with an emphasis on the roles of sex hormones. Sleep impairment including insomnia, trauma-related nightmares, and rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep fragmentation has been observed in individuals with chronic and developing PTSD, suggesting that sleep impairment is a characteristic of PTSD and a risk factor for its development. Preliminary findings suggested sex specific patterns of sleep alterations in developing and established PTSD. Sleep maintenance impairment in the aftermath of trauma was observed in women who subsequently developed PTSD, and greater REM sleep fragmentation soon after trauma was associated with developing PTSD in both sexes. In chronic PTSD, reduced deep sleep has been found only in men, and impaired sleep initiation and maintenance with PTSD have been found in both sexes. A limited number of studies with small samples have shown that sex hormones and their fluctuations over the menstrual cycle influenced sleep as well as fear extinction, a process hypothesized to be critical to the pathogenesis of PTSD. To further elucidate the possible relationship between the sex specific patterns of PTSD-related sleep alterations and the sexually dimorphic risk for PTSD, future studies with larger samples should comprehensively examine effects of sex hormones and the menstrual cycle on sleep responses to trauma and the risk/resilience for PTSD utilizing various methodologies including fear conditioning and extinction paradigms and animal models.

Keywords:
Posttraumatic stress disorder; PTSD; Sleep; Sex differences