Sleep also has far-reaching effects on well-being. It is a pillar of health that is critical to nearly every process and system of the body.
Despite the major role that both sleep and sex have in overall wellness, the relationship between them has often been overlooked. Fortunately, though, expanding knowledge in health sciences has started to reveal an important, bidirectional link between sex and sleep.
While there is more research to be done, evidence so far demonstrates that quality sleep can promote a better sex life, and a healthy sex life can facilitate improved sleep.
Recognizing the connections between sleep and sex can create opportunities for enhancing each of these significant contributors to adult health.
Sleep and sexuality are complex and involve both the mind and body. Reviewing the basic elements of healthy sleep and sex enables a more well-rounded understanding of the relationship between them.
Sleep is essential for recuperation, and sleeping well requires getting a sufficient amount of rest, which is seven to nine hours per night for most adults.
Sleep quality is also vital. A typical night’s sleep is made up of several sleep cycles, each of which is composed of individual sleep stages. Continuous sleep without interruption allows these stages to unfold properly, enabling truly restorative sleep.
Although sleep shares many central characteristics in both men and women, there are gender- and sex-based differences in how sleep works that can influence the ability to sleep well.
Like sleep, sex is made up of several different elements. In healthy sexual function, both sexes experience the following four stages:
When one or more stages of this process become disrupted, it can cause sexual dysfunction.
Sexual problems can affect anyone, but the causes and symptoms are frequently distinct in men and women. Studies estimate that around 33% of men and 45% of women experienced at least mild sexual problems in the last year, and around 13% of men and 17% of women had more serious issues that caused them distress.
Examples of sexual dysfunction include a loss of interest in sex, a lack of arousal, an inability to experience excitement or orgasm, and sex that is painful or not enjoyable. Sexual health problems can be primarily physical but are commonly tied to mental, emotional, or relationship issues that interfere with normal sexual activity.
Research studies have found multiple ways that nightly sleep can affect sex.
Sleep deprivation has been associated with reduced sexual desire and arousal in women. As a result, insomnia, one of the most common sleep disorders, may be a risk factor for sexual dysfunction. A lack of sleep and disrupted sleep have also been linked to a higher risk of erectile dysfunction.
Perhaps surprisingly, short-term sleep deprivation has been found to cause increased sexual arousal in women the following day, which may be tied to changes in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. However, this lack of sleep was not found to increase the likelihood of actually having sex, which may reflect how sleepiness and fatigue can interfere with sexual activity.
Several sleep disorders have been connected to sexual problems. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which involves recurring pauses in breathing that disrupt sleep, has been associated with a significantly higher risk of erectile dysfunction. Studies have also shown that OSA is tied to sexual dysfunction in women.
Working non-standard hours, known as shift work, also has been linked to erectile dysfunction. Shift work can throw a person’s circadian rhythm out of alignment with the day-night schedule, interfering with numerous bodily processes. The risk of sexual problems has been found mostly in shift workers who report poor sleep.
Poor sleep can also hinder sex because of its effect on mental health. Insufficient and fragmented sleep can exacerbate conditions like depression and anxiety. These disorders are often related to sexual dysfunction in women and men because of their influence on sexual desire and arousal.
Besides mental health disorders, poor sleep can lead to emotional and relationship problems that can hinder sexual health. For example, a lack of sleep can make conflict with a partner more likely, fostering an emotional state that heightens stress, reduces intimacy, and detracts from a satisfying sex life.
Another way that sleep may affect sexual health is through impaired decision-making and impulse control. Sleep deprivation may raise the risk of risky sexual behavior that can lead to sexually transmitted infections or unplanned pregnancy.
Sexual activity can often contribute to better sleep. After an orgasm, the body releases hormones, like oxytocin and prolactin, that can induce pleasant and relaxing feelings. Sex also reduces levels of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with stress.
Studies indicate that these hormonal changes can cause drowsiness and make it easier to fall asleep. This effect can occur with masturbation as well as sex. Around 50% of both men and women say that an orgasm from masturbation helps them fall asleep and improves their sleep quality.
Sex with a partner may enhance this hormonal response and facilitate greater feelings of closeness and intimacy that are conducive to sleep. In heterosexual partners, research has found this effect to be greater in men than women, which aligns with a popular social conception of men quickly falling asleep after sex.
However, when both people achieve orgasm during sex, the difference in sleepiness is no longer statistically significant. In this way, the association of sleepiness and sex for men in heterosexual relationships may, in part, reflect a disparity in satisfaction and orgasm achieved during sex with a partner.
The relationship between sleep and sex creates an opportunity to improve both of them along with your overall well-being.
For many people, improving sleep starts by raising the issue with a doctor. Sleeping problems and daytime sleepiness can be caused by underlying sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, that have effective treatments. Diagnosing and treating those conditions can meaningfully improve sleep and may improve sex. For example, consistent adherence to treatment for sleep apnea has been found to reduce erectile dysfunction in men.
Shift workers can talk with a doctor to optimize their sleep within their work schedule. Different types of treatment, including a specialized kind of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), can help people with insomnia get better rest. A doctor can also help address other health conditions that can interfere with sleep.
Sleep hygiene is another critical aspect of quality sleep. It incorporates both the sleep environment and the daily habits that influence sleep. Specific tips that can strengthen sleep hygiene include:
Making an effort to improve sleep hygiene can help you get more of the sleep you need every day. In doing so, these healthy habits can also pave the way to a more vibrant sex life.
Improving sexual health, including regular, satisfying sex, can boost your wellness and may facilitate better sleep.
As with sleep problems, it’s important to talk with a doctor about any concerns related to sexual health or sexual dysfunction. While many people are shy to raise these issues, it’s beneficial to discuss them openly and honestly with a health care provider. Remember that sexual problems are common, and doctors are trained to help address them. Regardless of your questions or concerns, there are numerous ways to start the conversation.
Sexual health can include far-reaching aspects of sex and sexuality. Improving sexual health might involve addressing issues with sexual performance or satisfaction, reviewing ways to practice safer sex, testing for sexually transmitted infections, and ensuring that sexual relationships are positive.
For some couples, sex therapy can provide practical advice to enhance intimacy and sexual fulfillment. Although general tips for better sex are widely available, working with a professional can incorporate valid, evidence-based approaches to cultivating a more rewarding sex life.