The relationship between sex and sleep is bidirectional, which means that in addition to sex affecting sleep, sleep impacts a person’s sex life. Sleeping for longer periods has been linked to higher sexual desire and arousal, and sleep deprivation can reduce these feelings. Also, men who work hours that disrupt sleep or live with certain sleep disorders may be at a higher risk for erectile dysfunction.
Learn more about the stages of sex, how sleep and sex affect one another, and how you can improve both your sleep and sexual health.
Stages of Sexual Response Cycle
Sexual function is a complex physical process regardless of the type of genitalia a person has. Your nervous, circulatory, and endocrine systems all play pivotal roles in sex. There are also psychological elements involving thoughts and emotions that occur during sexual activity.
Sexual function is divided into four distinct stages:
- Desire: Also known as libido, desire refers to feelings of wanting to engage in sexual activity. Triggers for desire are often sensory responses to smells, sights, or tactile signals. Words and thoughts can also incite desire. The motivation for sex builds until it leads to sexual arousal.
- Arousal: Arousal is a physiological response to sexual desire. The brain sends signals that increase blood flow to the genitals. Arteries that deliver blood to erectile tissue begin to expand and increase pressure. Blood flows into the clitoris and produces vaginal secretions. These processes gradually intensify and eventually plateau.
- Orgasm: Also known as climax, this stage represents the peak of sexual excitement and pleasure. Muscle tension increases throughout the body prior to orgasm. People with vaginal muscles might notice these muscles contract, and they may experience multiple orgasms. In people with penises, orgasms typically manifest as ejaculation.
- Resolution: During this stage, blood flow to the genitals decreases and feelings of arousal taper off. The body eventually returns to its original, unaroused state.
Does Sex Help You Sleep?
Research suggests that when sex involves orgasm, it can help people fall asleep. Following sexual climax, the body releases hormones, such as oxytocin and prolactin, that promote feelings of satisfaction and happiness. At the same time, production of cortisol — a hormone that induces alertness and excitement — decreases following orgasm. This combination of hormonal processes makes people feel tired and ready for sleep.
Feeling sleepy after an orgasm is not limited to sex with a partner. Studies have also linked better sleep with having an orgasm through masturbation.
Although having an orgasm generally tends to help people sleep, a small number of people have the opposite experience. They report taking longer to fall asleep and experiencing worse sleep quality after sex with a partner or masturbation.
Does Sleep Affect Sex?
High-quality sleep is essential for your overall health and also impacts your sexual health. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night to feel refreshed and well-rested in the morning. Healthy sleep is also tied to moods, energy levels, and other facets of your daily life that can directly or indirectly impact sexual activity.
A lack of sleep can decrease sexual desire and arousal. Sleeping just one hour more each night makes a person 14% more likely to engage in sex with a partner the next day. Although sleeping longer can reduce genital arousal, those with longer sleep durations on a night-to-night basis report higher arousal levels than those with shorter sleep durations.
Sleep disorders can also negatively impact sexual activity. Many sleep disorders are thought to contribute to problems with the urinary tract or trouble maintaining an erection, both of which can interfere with sexual function. These disorders include insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, shift work disorder, and restless legs syndrome. Additionally, feelings of depression and anxiety that often follow a night or period of poor sleep can lead to sexual dysfunction.
This is not to say a lack of sleep will always decrease your sex drive. In fact, short-term sleep deprivation has been linked to elevated feelings of sexual arousal. However, sleep deprivation does not appear to be related to greater sexual frequency. This means you may feel more sexual arousal after losing sleep, but not be more likely to engage in sex with a partner. Sleep deprivation may also increase feelings of dissatisfaction with your sex life.
How to Improve Your Sleep Quality and Sexual Health
Improving your sleep may improve your sex life, and improving your sex life may improve your sleep. Work on both at once by making changes in the bedroom. According to sleep hygiene guidelines, your bed should only be used for sleep and sex. Other activities in bed, such as reading, looking at your phone, eating, or watching television, are discouraged.
Other principles of sleep hygiene include:
- Getting Out of Bed if You Cannot Fall Asleep: Minimizing the time you spend awake in bed when not engaging in sex can help you sleep. If you are unable to fall asleep after lying in bed for 20 minutes, leave the bed and avoid returning until you feel sleepy.
- Following a Consistent Sleep-Wake Schedule: Falling asleep and waking up at the same times each day have been shown to improve overall sleep quality. This includes weekends and when you are on vacation.
- Establishing a Healthy Evening Routine: Reserve the period before bedtime for relaxation and self-care, as this can put you in the right mindset for sleep. Sex can be part of this routine, provided it does not interfere with your sleep schedule.
- Avoiding Sleep Deterrents: Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine can all negatively impact your sleep quality, so you should avoid these substances in the hours before bedtime. You should also consider removing electronic devices with screens from your bedroom. These devices emit blue light that is thought to interfere with your sleep cycle.
These tips may be unable to help people dealing with an underlying disorder. Consult your doctor if you think you are experiencing sexual dysfunction, sleep problems, or a combination of these two issues.
Individuals and couples experiencing sex-related issues may also benefit from attending sessions with a licensed sex therapist. This specialized type of therapy focuses on interventions and techniques intended to address sexual dysfunction and restore sexual satisfaction.
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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!