Sleep is a vital part of life. There is so much research demonstrating the remarkable benefits of sleep for humans. Proper sleep expands our lifespans, enhances our memory, makes us more creative, makes us happier and less anxious, protects us from cancer, dementia, risks of heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. Despite the well understood evidence of the benefits of sleep, humans are the only species on earth that will deprive themselves of sleep without any real gain. As Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, says in his book titled Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, “Every component of wellness and countless seams of societal fabric are being eroded by our costly state of sleep neglect.” According to statistics, 1 in 3 adults do not get adequate regular sleep (at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night). The World Health Organization has declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout industrialized nations and scientists have begun lobbying doctors to “prescribe” sleep to patients. Both sex and sleep are important components of our overall well-being. The relationship between these two things – sex and sleep – is bidirectional, meaning that in addition to sex affecting your ability to sleep, the quality of your sleep impacts the quality of your sex life. In this newsletter series, we will explain the connections between sleep and sex to help you leverage sex for better sleep and find ways to improve your sleep habits so that you can have a more vibrant sex life.
Sleep & Sex Cycles
Before getting into the specific positive and negative impacts of sex on sleep and vice versa, it’s useful to understand the different stages of both our sleep and sex cycles.
Sleep is divided into two independent states: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). NREM sleep is further divided into three stages. Over the course of a single sleep session, NREM and REM sleep alternate, with each cycle lasting for approximately 90-100 minutes. Each stage of sleep offers different brain benefits at different times of the night. Losing out on any of these types of sleep will cause brain impairment. Here’s a quick summary:
- NREM Stage 1: This is the transitional stage between wakefulness and light sleep which is generally short. You begin to feel your muscles relax, and drowsiness overcome you. The brainwaves that are associated with a relaxed wakeful state - alpha waves - begin to subside during this stage, giving way to brainwave frequencies called Theta.
- NREM Stage 2: Light sleep is the next stage of sleep and generally covers 50-60% of the night. As you transition from light sleep to deep sleep, your brainwaves slow further, as you drift into a deeper slumber.
- NREM Stage 3: This is the deep sleep stage when brain waves, heart rate and breathing slow considerably. Blood pressure lowers, muscles relax, and it becomes difficult to wake up. During this sleep stage, the body restores function to the immune system.
REM Sleep: Periods of REM sleep grow progressively longer throughout the night. During REM sleep, the brain increases its activity and your eyes move rapidly in different directions. Heart rate and blood pressure increases, your breathing becomes fast, irregular, and shallow, and your brain begins producing REM sleep waves which look quite similar to those seen when we’re awake. Most dreaming occurs during this phase.
Sexual function is a complex physical process regardless of the type of genitalia a person has. There are various models that sex therapists, educators and researchers use to understand human sexual functioning. One of the most commonly used models is the 4-phase sexual response cycle. Understanding this cycle is helpful in being able to identify sexual problems. Here’s a brief description of the four phases:
It’s important to note there are other models that explain physical and emotional changes that happen when you are participating in a sexual activity, such as the dual control model (read this blog post by sex educator and researcher Emily Nagoski for more information on this model).
How does sleep affect your sex life?
Both physical and psychological elements play a pivotal role in sex. Your sleep habits affect both your physiological and psychological state in various ways, in turn impacting your sex life.
Physiologically, poor sleep can lead to infertility issues as well as sexual dysfunctions. Studies have shown that men who do not get enough sleep are susceptible to producing low levels of sperm or experiencing testosterone deficiency. Sleep deprivation can also negatively impact the quality of existing sperm. Among women, long-term lack of sleep can trigger issues with ovulation (the period when they are most likely to get pregnant). Research has shown that disrupted sleep and sleep disorders, such as insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), lead to a higher risk of sexual dysfunctions. A 2016 study found that 63% of men with OSA also experience erectile dysfunction. A 2021 study in the Sleep Breath Journal as well as 2021 study from the Journal of The North American Menopause Society found poor sleep quality associated with greater odds of female sexual dysfunction. Conversely, a healthy sleep schedule promotes healthy sexual desirenital response, and increases the likelihood of engaging in partnered sexual activity. Indeed, one study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that women’s desire to engage in sexual intercourse could increase by 14% for every extra hour of sleep length.
Psychologically, healthy sleep is linked to moods and energy levels which impact sexual activity. Poor sleep can result in fatigue and drowsiness which can contribute towards feelings of depression and anxiety. These mental health conditions can interfere with a person’s ability to process sexual stimuli and be able to get turned on. Not surprisingly, sleep deprived people tend to experience reduced interest in sex because of their limited energy. These issues can lead to emotional and relationship problems that further hinder sexual wellness. Think about it - when you’re sleep deprived, you’re more irritable. This may lead you to have less patience with your partner and actually develop contempt towards them, which reduces intimacy and inevitably detracts from your sex life satisfaction. Moreover, mental health issues can prevent us form being able to be fully relaxed and present during sex, which tends to be a precursor to being able to orgasm for many people.
How does sex affect sleep quality?
More regular sex can facilitate better sleep, especially when that sex involves orgasm. After an orgasm, the body releases hormones, such as oxytocin and prolactin, that promote feelings of satisfaction and relaxation. Orgasms also reduce levels of the hormone cortisol, a hormone associated with stress that induces alertness. In tandem, these hormonal processes encourage a slumber state that makes people fall asleep easier and more deeply. They can also enhance feelings of closeneess and intimacy with a partner, which are conducive to sleep.
These hormones are released whether your climaxing with a partner or from masturbation. In 2019, the first study to explore gender differences in the relationship between sexual activities and sleep quality and sleep latency was published in the Frontiers in Public Health Journal. The study identified a difference between males' and females' perceptions of sleep quality, particularly following sex with a partner. Specifically, a higher proportion of males than females reported perceived improvement in sleep quality and sleep following sex with a partner. The study did not explore the reason for the difference between males and females, but the authors pointed to the gender gap in orgasm frequency from partnered sex as a likely reason (the orgasm gap). On the other hand, the study found that orgasms achieved through masturbation were associated with the perception of better sleep quality and latency among both males and females, which supports the idea of orgasm, as opposed to sexual activity, in facilitating better sleep for both men and women.
How to improve the quality of your sleep
If you think you’re experiencing sexual dysfunction, sleep problems, or a combination of these two issues, it’s important that you talk to your doctor. Diagnosing and treating such conditions can meaningfully improve both your sleep and sex life. Outside of treating disorders, your behaviors during the day and especially before bedtime, can have a major impact on your sleep and sex life. The term “sleep hygiene” refers to a series of healthy sleep habits that can improve your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. ICheck out this link for sleep hygiene quick tips from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. These tips include adopting sleep habits such as establishing a bedtime routine that helps prepare your body and mind for sleep and making sure that you use your bed only for sleep and sex (other activities in bed, such as reading, looking at your phone, eating, or watching television, are discouraged). Finally, individuals and couples that are experiencing distress from sleep or sex-related issues may also benefit from specialized types of therapies with professionals.
Written by Natalia Jaczkowski