Sex and Sleep
Source: Bruce Mars/UnSplash
Many people in our culture today struggle with sexual problems and insecurities. A recent nationally representative study, for example, found that 26 percent of premenopausal women, 52 percent of menopausal women, and 5 percent of men struggle with low sexual desire. People, especially millennials, are reporting far less sexual activity compared to generations prior. Although no one knows the reasons for this for sure, suggested explanations range from stress, video game usage, porn, and a higher percentage of young men living at home with their parents to environmental toxins and obesity.
Like sex, sleep is another important biological function, one that we spend a third of our lives doing. The benefits of high-quality sleep impact everything from our mood to our physical and mental health. Given the deep psychological roots of both sleep and sex, is it possible that they depend on each other? A new study suggests that the answer is definitely yes.
What We Know About Sleep and Sex So Far
Despite the huge effect that sleep has on our wellbeing, there has been surprisingly little research to date exploring how its quality impacts our sex lives. In contrast, the research on sleep and sex has mostly looked at what our bodies do while we’re sleeping.
For example, it’s well documented that the physical signs of sexual arousal ebb and flow throughout the night depending on which phase of sleep a person is in. On average, a person experiences four to five clitoral or penile erections a night during REM sleep, which is when a person is dreaming. Interestingly, these erections don’t always correspond to sexual dreams; often it’s just bodies doing what bodies do.
More recent research, however, has found that sleep impacts not just our sexual organs but our subjective feelings of sexual satisfaction as well. The current study found, for example, that feelings of sexual satisfaction in one’s relationship and experiencing other forms of close touch with one’s partner were both highly correlated with good sleep quality. The authors found that sexual position and frequency of sexual behavior didn’t vary with sleep quality, however, suggesting that it’s simply how satisfying and pleasurable the sex is that matters rather than the amount.
Why Sleep and Sex Are So Closely Intertwined
Given the huge impact that sleep plays on our mood, physical health, and general well-being, this makes sense. The more soundly we sleep, the more capable we are of handling the stressors that get in the way of our desiring sex in the first place. We feel better. We have more energy. We’re better able to handle life’s normal ups and downs.
Being in a state of exhaustion has the opposite effect. When we’re tired, our cortisol levels rise, causing us to store fat and enter a state that’s similar to fight or flight mode. For reasons due partly to evolution, sex becomes less of a priority.
Lack of sleep can also impact sexual satisfaction indirectly by challenging our relationships. When we’re tired, we tend to draw inward. We’re less likely to put ourselves out there and try to connect whether on a dating site or in an established relationship. Our thinking becomes clouded. Our creative problem-solving skills suffer, making us less able to find solutions to conflicts that inevitably arise in our relationships.
Sleep and sex are connected in other ways as well; not only does sleep facilitate sex, but sex also leads to deeper sleep. There are two main reasons for this. First, the cocktail of neurochemicals released during orgasm produces feelings of calm that invite sleepiness. This effect is found not only in partnered sex but in solo play as well.
Sex is also physically exerting. Depending on its intensity and duration, it can easily tire a person out.
How Couples Can Sync Up Sleep and Sex
For couples who struggle with different sleep schedules, planning sex can present challenges. While the night owl partner is up late and possibly in the mood for sex, the other is sound asleep. When the early bird partner rises the next morning ready for action, their night owl partner is dead asleep.
Sexual problems can also occur for couples who sleep in different beds or rooms at night to protect themselves from the sleep disruption that can come from having a restless, snoring partner. In both scenarios, researchers have found that the answer is to maximize the time you spend in bed together, whether you’re awake or asleep.
Sleep and sex serve very important functions in most people’s lives. Poor quality sleep and low sexual satisfaction share many of the same root causes. A good way to protect their quality is to prioritize both in a way that makes sense for you, individually.