Although sex and sleep may seem unrelated, the quality and consistency of a person’s sleep can actually have a big impact on their sex life. The following is a quick reference guide on the ways that sleep can affect a person’s sexual function and satisfaction, as well as ideas for improving your sleep habits and, hopefully, your sex life by extension.
Irregular or disturbed sleep patterns.
Circadian rhythm refers to the body’s natural, internal sleep-wake cycle that repeats roughly every 24 hours. This cycle varies from person to person, and it is estimated to be about 50% genetically determined. Nevertheless, according to the National Sleep Foundation, most teenagers require 8 to 10 hours of sleep per day, adults require 7 to 9 hours of sleep, and older adults require 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
When people do not get enough sleep, their overall health and functioning is impaired. They are more likely to experience daytime fatigue, increased irritability, a higher risk of accidents, and difficulties with concentration. Research shows that sexual functioning is also impacted by a lack of sleep and/or irregular sleep patterns that disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm.
Several studies have identified shift work (i.e., rotating shifts and night shifts) as a risk factor for erectile dysfunction (ED) in men. Additionally, healthcare workers who work the night shift (often nurses) report worse daytime functioning that may extend to their sexual functioning. Fortunately, a recent study showed that sleep education and changes in behavior resulted in improved sexual self-efficacy and sexual quality of life for a sample of 120 female nurses.
Sleep patterns that are incongruent with a sexual partner’s patterns.
Not only do irregular sleep patterns affect a person’s sex life, so do sleep patterns that do not align with a sexual partner’s. Since everyone has their own circadian rhythm, it is possible that one member of a couple will have energy and sexual desire at times when the other member is ready to sleep. There are even common gender-related differences in circadian rhythm: men tend to be more active in the evening, while women tend to be more active in the morning. If a couple’s circadian rhythms do not line up, it may lead to decreased frequency of sexual activity and/or disrupted sleep if one person is active while the other is trying to sleep.
Insomnia is the difficulty or inability to fall asleep and stay asleep, despite having adequate opportunity and circumstances for sleep. People who suffer from chronic insomnia (symptoms that last for at least 3 months and occur at least 3 times per week) usually experience daytime consequences. Again, among these consequences are issues related to sexual performance and satisfaction.
A longitudinal study of 171 women showed that an additional hour of sleep per night was associated with a 14% increase in sexual frequency. The women who got more sleep in this study also reported better genital arousal than those who got less sleep.
For men, insomnia and sleep deprivation have been found to be associated with decreased testosterone levels and sexual dysfunction. Surprisingly, research has shown that just a few nights of sleep deprivation (less than 5 hours of sleep) can result in a 10% reduction in man’s testosterone levels.
Obstructive sleep apnea.
Lastly, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is the repeated halting of breathing during sleep, is associated with increased rates of sexual dysfunction in both men and women. Men with OSA experience a higher incidence of ED, and women with OSA report higher rates of female sexual dysfunction and sexual distress. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), the standard treatment for OSA, can also help improve the dilation of the blood vessels in the penis and erectile function.
Best sleep practices.
Sleep hygiene, or good sleep habits, can improve a person’s sleep and may contribute to better sexual outcomes as well. Here are some of the best sleep practices a person can follow:
- Be consistent with the times you go to bed and wake up each day.
- Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, comfortable, and free from distractions such as TVs, computers, and other electronic devices.
- Try to avoid having caffeine late in the day or eating large meals right before bed.
- Exercise regularly. Consistent physical activity can help a person fall and stay asleep at night.
- Practice relaxation techniques before bed.
- Consult a sleep medicine specialist if you have a sleep disorder or find you have trouble falling or staying asleep.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2016, July 15). Tips for Better Sleep. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/sleep_hygiene.html
Khastar, H., Mirrezaie, S.M., Chashmi, N.A., & Jahanfar, S. (2020). Sleep improvement effect on sexual life quality among rotating female shift workers: A randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 17(8), 1467-1475. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2020.03.003
Lew-Starowicz, M. (2022). Sexuality and Sleep Disorders. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 19(6), 890-894. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2022.02.011
Troxel, W. [BBC]. (2022, May 23). Why great sleep is the new ‘great sex’ [Video]. https://www.bbc.co.uk/reel/playlist/the-science-of-sleep?vpid=p0c7rpjq