You may be wondering what sex has to do with sleep. A lot. Quality sleep can promote a better sex life, and a healthy sex life can facilitate improved sleep. So why are we still so tired and sex deprived? In this episode, I talk about why we are sleep deprived and what we can do to improve our sleep AND our sex life at the same time. I don’t know who decided that the only time we can have sex is at night when we’re exhausted but they were wrong. Listen to find out what else we may be wrong about when it comes to sex and sleep.
You are probably already aware that sleep is an important part of overall health. But did you know that sex is too? And, there is a reciprocal relationship between sex and sleep. Understanding how these two things are connected can help us create opportunities for enhancing both. So today, we are going to talk about both and how they are connected.
Sleep is a very important part of our well-being. It is critical to nearly every process and system of the body. While it is recommended that most adults get seven to nine hours per night, the quality of that sleep is also vital. To truly have a restorative sleep, we need a continuous sleep without interruption that allows all of the individual sleep cycles.
During a normal night of sleep, we typically have three to five sleep cycles. These cycles last from 70 to 120 minutes and are made up of distinct sleep stages.
Stage 1 is essentially the “dozing off” stage and it normally lasts just one to five minutes. During this stage the body hasn’t fully relaxed yet, but the body and brain activities start to slow with periods of brief movements. If you’ve ever twitched when you are falling asleep, that is typical of stage 1. It’s easy to wake someone up during this stage, but if a person isn’t disturbed, they can move quickly into stage 2. As the night goes on, an uninterrupted sleeper may not spend much more time in stage 1 as they move through further sleep cycles.
During stage 2, the body enters a more subdued state including a drop in temperature, relaxed muscles, and slowed breathing and heart rate. Eye movement stops and brain waves show a new pattern; it slows but then there are short bursts of activity, which help resist being woken up by external stimuli. Stage 2 can last for 10-15 minutes during the first sleep cycle and get longer through subsequent cycles. People typically spend about half their sleep in stage 2.
Stage 3 is also known as deep sleep and it is harder to wake someone up if they are in this phase. Muscle tone, pulse, and breathing rate decrease as the body relaxes even further. Brain activity during stage 3 has an identifiable pattern called delta waves. We spend the most time in deep sleep during the first half of the night. In early cycles, stage 3 typically lasts for 20-40 minutes, but as you continue sleeping these stages get shorter and more time is spent in REM sleep instead.
Experts believe that stage 3 sleep is critical to restorative sleep, allowing for bodily recovery and growth. It may also bolster the immune system, another key bodily processes. Even though brain activity is reduced, there is evidence that deep sleep contributes to insightful thinking, creativity, and memory.
The fourth stage is REM sleep. In REM sleep, brain activity picks up, nearing levels seen when you’re awake. At the same time, the body experiences atonia, which is a temporary paralysis of the muscles, with two exceptions; the eyes and the muscles that control breathing. Even though the eyes are closed, they can be seen moving quickly.
REM sleep is believed to be essential to cognitive functions like memory, learning, and creativity. REM sleep is known for the most vivid dreams, although you can dream in any stage.
Under normal circumstances, you don’t enter a REM sleep stage until you’ve been asleep for about 90 minutes. As the night goes on, REM stages get longer, especially in the second half of the night. While the first REM stage may only last a few minutes, later stages can last for an hour. In total, REM stages make up about 25% of sleep in adults.
Research shows that, on average, women in the United States get more total sleep each day than men. But, it also shows that women experience more fragmentation and lower quality sleep. So it makes sense that women sleep more in an attempt to compensate for the reduced sleep quality.
So why the difference between men and women? A few things.
- Men and women have variations in their sleep cycles. Women tend to accumulate more time in Stage 2 (deep sleep) and less time in stage 1.
- Different Circadian Rhythm’s. The circadian rhythm is the body’s 24-hour clock and it helps regulate all types of bodily systems and processes. When a person’s circadian rhythm and their actual sleep schedule isn’t synchronized it can cause sleep disruptions, daytime sleepiness, and other health problems. Women’s circadian rhythms tend to be a little bit shorter than the 24 hours, which means a tendency to both go to bed and wake up earlier.
- Hormones are major driver of sleep differences. Shifts in hormone production during various points in a woman’s life (puberty, pregnancy, and menopause) can create significant sleeping problems.
Age-related hormonal shifts also affect men and may impact their sleep. In older men, growth hormone production decreases while levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress tend to increase. Changing levels of these hormones can occur because of poor sleep, but they may also contribute to increased awakenings and reduced sleep quality.
Aging in men can also involve decreasing levels of testosterone, which some studies have shown can be associated with worse sleep.
Sleep can also be disrupted by underlying health problems, many of which do not affect men and women equally.
- Men can have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and chronic lung problems, both of which can negatively affect sleep.
- Women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety, which can contribute to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Women also tend to have to urinate at night more often, which hinders sleep. Women are also more likely to experience heartburn and acid reflux which can worsen overall sleep as well.
Women also tend to disproportionately serve as the primary caregivers for young children, ill family members, and older adults. Caregivers experience more sleep interruptions as well as heightened overall stress, that can worsen sleep. Gender norms also play a role in work schedules and division of household obligations, which tend to place additional strain on women, affecting their sleep patterns. That being said, these norms can also affect men. For example, men can feel pressure to be the income-earners, leading to more stress and decreased time devoted to sleep.
Sleep depravation definitely takes a physical and mental toll on both men and women. A 2007 Sleep In America Poll found that about 80% of women said they just accept it and power through when they are sleepy during the day.
Another thing that can affect sleep is sleeping next to a partner. Studies have generally found that people sleep better alone than with a partner, although most people say that their sleep is subjectively improved when they are next to their partner. Although that can totally depend on the quality of the relationship. Positive relationship characteristics are associated with a sense of calm and safety that is conducive to better sleep. Negative characteristics are tied to poorer sleep. Men are more likely to snore, so their wives are more likely to have their sleep interrrupted.
So how does all this affect your sex life?
Sleep deprivation has been associated with reduced levels of desire and arousal in women. A lack of sleep and disrupted sleep have also been linked to a higher risk of erectile dysfunction. Poor sleep can also hinder sex because of its effect on mental health. Insufficient and fragmented sleep can exacerbate conditions like depression and anxiety.
Besides mental health, poor sleep can lead to emotional and relationship problems that can hinder sexual health. For example, a lack of sleep can make it a lot easier to get frustrated or lose your temper with a partner, heightened stress from lack of sleep lowers desire and arousal as well.
Sounds like a recipe for disaster in the child-bearing years right?
On the flip side of this, sex 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 cortisol, which is associated with stress.
Studies show that the release of oxytocin and prolactin can cause drowsiness and make it easier to fall asleep. The hormones can also create greater feelings of closeness and intimacy that are conducive to sleep.
So what is the conclusion? Quality sleep can promote a better sex life, and a healthy sex life can facilitate improved sleep.
But what all of this information doesn’t address is our mindset about sleep and sex.
I hear from so many women that they are so tired by the time they get to bed that they would much rather sleep than have sex. And it makes sense given the factors we’ve discussed. And many times, I don’t blame them. Especially when there is an unequal distribution of labor in the home.
So what can we do?
- Try to have sex at a different time of day. I don’t know who decided that we needed to have sex at night when we are exhausted. What about sex in the morning? Women tend to be less inhibited in the morning because their mind hasn’t really started going yet, and men’s testosterone peaks in the morning, so win/win. Or try another time of day. Maybe right when your husband gets home from work. Put the kids in front of a show or send them outside and grab a few minutes to yourselves. It may not be a full sexy feast, but it can reconnect the two of you.
- Advocate for time for yourself. If you know it’s been a while and you need a few minutes to reconnect to yourself or even take a little nap, do it. Let your husband know that he’s in charge of dishes and getting the kids to bed. Also let him know it’s to his advantage to do this.
- Set aside a night or two where you will sacrifice a little bit more sleep for the most important relationship that you have. I know this isn’t the answer every night. Sleep is definitely important. But if it’s a choice between sex or sleep, maybe choose sex once or twice a week. I think we need to look at ourselves and be honest and make sure we aren’t consistently choosing sleep over connecting with our husbands in the most intimate way we can.