The Reciprocal Relationship Between Sleep and Sex
How the hours we log under the covers impacts our intimate activities between the sheets.
Mar 25th, 2021 •
Expert Insights from Dr. Laurie Mintz, author, therapist, professor, and speaker, who has committed her life’s work to helping people live more authentic, meaningful, and joyful lives through the art and science of psychology.
Have you ever been so tired, sex was the last thing on your mind? Maybe you’ve wondered why you get so sleepy after sex. Most people don’t realize is sleep and sex are intimately related – in both good and bad ways.
In an article published on The Conversation, sex therapist and author, Dr. Laurie Mintz, writes, “It is now clear that a hidden cause of sex problems is sleeplessness and that a hidden cause of sleeplessness is sex problems.
Here at Mattress Advisor, we review some of the best mattresses for sex, but we wanted to get a better understanding of this hot topic too, so we called on the expertise of Dr. Mintz to ask all of our burning questions.
The Intimacy Between Sleep and Sex
It’s no surprise that sleep and sex are intertwined. For one, they happen in the same place (most of the time). Not only that, but sleep and sex problems often have a common culprit: stress (but more on that later).
Sleep problems and intimacy issues can be inversely related – sleep problems can lead to sex problems and vice versa. “Conversely, a good night’s sleep can lead to a greater interest in sex, and orgasmic sex can result in a better night’s sleep,” Dr. Mintz explains.
“At the most basic level, when you are tired, you don’t have the energy for sex,” Dr. Mintz tells us. There are biological and psychological reasons for this, but you know what we mean. After a long day, sometimes you just want to come home and crash. Just the thought of getting it on exhausts you.
Yet, there is another reason lack of sleep impacts sex drive and it has to do with cortisol levels — what you may know as the stress hormone.
“Lack of sleep increases cortisol levels,” Dr. Mintz explains. At night, cortisol levels should decrease. But if you’ve lost sleep, cortisol levels stay elevated.
Here’s the caveat — cortisol and testosterone don’t get along well. “An increase in cortisol causes a decrease in testosterone, which we know impacts sex drive in both men and women,” Dr. Mintz explains.
You might be wondering why these two hormones can’t coexist. We did a little digging to find out.
If cortisol and testosterone were in a relationship, let’s just say, it would be complicated. So before we get started, here are a couple of key players you should know about:
- Pregnenolone – known as “the mother of all steroid hormones” because estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol and other hormones wouldn’t exist without it
- Cortisol – known as “the stress hormone”
- Testosterone – the hormone that controls sex drive
The Hormone Communication Networks
- The HPG Axis – controls hormones related to reproduction
- The HPA Axis – controls the body’s response to stress
- The Hypothalamus – maintains homeostasis (aka keeps the body in balance)
What Goes Down
Hormones are chemical messengers that communicate information from the brain to the rest of the body across two different networks known as hormonal axes. One axis (the HPG axis) controls reproduction. The other (the HPA axis) controls the body’s response to stress. These axes don’t operate alone – they interact with one another.
When under stress, cortisol temporarily increases glucose levels to give the body the energy needed to fight or flee the stressor, at the expense of other bodily functions not required for immediate survival. This is why chronic stress is so detrimental – the body never relaxes. This imbalance causes the hypothalamus to freak out (remember it’s job is to maintain order).
In response to chronic stress, the HPA (stress response) axis hijacks pregnenolone (the mother of all hormones) from the HPG (reproduction) axis so that it can keep cortisol levels high, at the expense of testosterone, who’s been robbed of the pregnenolone needed for its own production.
Long story short? Lack of sleep causes stress which decreases sex drive.
Don’t worry! The relationship between sleep and sex isn’t all bad. We’ve covered how sleep impacts sex, but what about how sex impacts sleep?
Before we go any further, there’s something you should know. It’s not the act of sex that leads to sleepiness – it’s having an orgasm, specifically, the hormones that are released during orgasm, that make you tired.
“A good (orgasmic) sexual encounter releases hormones that make you sleepy,” Dr. Mintz tells us.
“Basically, this all has to do with oxytocin – what we know to be the love hormone. Oxytocin is released after orgasm and gives you an all-over, highly relaxing feeling that aids in sleep. The physical release of orgasm itself often has biochemical and emotional effects that make you feel more relaxed — but a lot of it is due to the oxytocin.”
True or False? Only Men Get Tired After Sex.
“Experts claim that sex might have gender-specific effects on sleep; however, orgasm increases estrogen levels in women, which leads to deeper sleep. Among men, the hormone prolactin that is secreted after orgasm results in sleepiness,” Dr. Mintz explains.
Yet, we are familiar with this all too common scenario — after sex, women lie awake staring hostilely at the ceiling while their man falls into a deep slumber. Ladies, you have probably wondered as you lay awake, “Why does this always happen?”
“From my experience, it’s sort of a stereotype that only men get tired after sex. Orgasm causes both men and women to get sleepy,” Dr. Mintz tells us.
So why then are women lying awake silently cursing their partner’s name?
This is not proven by scientific research, but Dr. Mintz has an interesting theory as to why this scenario is all too common. Remember, it’s not sex that causes sleepiness, but orgasm.
“We have research that proves men have significantly more orgasms than women. Perhaps the reason it’s more common for men to fall asleep after a sexual encounter is because they are reaching orgasm, and women are not.”
Just food for thought.
“So much of what we know about female sexuality and sexuality, in general, is in its infancy. What I want to make clear is that women do not have a lower sex drive than men. However, it is a fact that women are more likely than men to have sleep problems, and the most common sexual complaint that women bring to sex therapists is low desire. Being too tired for sex is the top reason that women give for their loss of sexual desire,” Dr. Mintz tells us.
There are two reasons why women are more likely than men to have a lower sexual desire:
Reason 1: Erotic Plasticity
“Erotic plasticity is just a fancy way of saying women’s sex drive is more impacted by external factors than men’s,” Dr. Mintz explains. These external factors can include things like tiredness, stress, marital discord and having too much to do.
“While men also struggle with stress, there is evidence that stress and the resulting sleepless nights dampen women’s sexual desire more than they do men’s. Both insufficient sleep and stress result in the release of cortisol, and cortisol decreases testosterone.”
This is in part because women have less testosterone than men.
Dr. Mintz gave us a great analogy to illustrate this principle (originally from her book “A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex”):
Think of testosterone as a tank of gas, in which men have a 20-gallon tank and women have a 10-gallon tank (the women’s tank is smaller because men have significantly more testosterone). This tank of testosterone is decreased by cortisol (or “the stress hormone” that is released by stress and lack of sleep). Cortisol may take the men’s tank down to 10 gallons, but takes women’s tank to empty.
Reason 2: Spontaneous Sexual Desire Decreases as You Get Older
The sexual response cycle is how our bodies go from horny to satisfied.
“You were probably taught in school this cycle is linear,” meaning these things happen one after the other, Dr. Mintz explains. It might have been described something like this:
It begins by feeling horny/turned on.
This leads to having a sexual encounter.
From there you go from arousal to excitement to orgasm and finally, resolution.
But there is very good evidence that’s not the case for many women.
“We are led to believe this cycle is true. Often in our younger years, it is. But as you get older and experience more stressors or remain in a long-term relationship, women stop feeling spontaneous sexual desires. Instead, they feel ‘receptive sexual desire.’ Which means the sexual encounter itself leads to the desire, not the feeling of being turned on,” Dr. Mintz explains. “Women might not feel horny, but in this case, they know if they had sex they’d feel better and closer to their partner,” she says. All this to say, in women, the desire/arousal stage is much more indistinguishable that it is in men.
The problem is women don’t know this is completely normal. Dr. Mintz says oftentimes women are sitting around thinking, “What’s wrong with me? I don’t feel horny like I use to when I was young.” The truth of the matter is, nothing is wrong with you – that is absolutely normal.
A common exchange between Dr. Mintz and a client:
Dr. Mintz tells us that this teaching alone has helped countless women when put into practice.
Reason 3: Women Experience More Life Stages that Lead to Sleepless Nights (which, ultimately, hits their sex drive harder)
In women, there are two life stages that are associated with intense lack of sleep and low sex drive (which we already know to be related). Here’s what Dr. Mintz told us about these stages:
“There are certain life stages in women that are associated with both intense sleeplessness and a low sex drive. For instance, caring for a newborn. First of all, your body has gone through this sort of hormonal war. On top of that, you’re exhausted and nursing a baby. Your sex drive and sleep are going to be very messed up in early motherhood years.”
“Menopause is associated, for some but not all women, with sleeplessness. Insomnia is one of the most common side effects. At the same time, so is vaginal dryness, which can make sex painful if not treated. So all of a sudden you aren’t sleeping and intercourse doesn’t feel as good anymore.” No wonder you aren’t in the mood to get it on.
Men, on the other hand, experience a different issue related to sex and sleep. It has to do with prostate enlargement.
“As men age, their prostate becomes enlarged. This results in many trips to the bathroom throughout the night. Constant interruption of restful sleep can increase cortisol and decrease testosterone which impacts sex drive,” Dr. Mintz explains.
To make matters worse, if a man with this problem is under stress, his mind may get turned on as he keeps getting up, making it even harder to get back to sleep.
Now you know how sleep and sex impact one another, but that doesn’t make the problem go away – you are still too tired for sex. So what do you do?
Just like a sleep schedule helps you get the rest you need, having a sex schedule helps you get the satisfaction you need. Before you reject this idea outright, here’s why you should consider it:
Spontaneous Sex is a Myth
“A lot of people are against scheduled sex. But the truth is, maybe by fault of the media or Nicholas Sparks, spontaneous sex is a myth,” Dr. Mintz explains.
She continues: “Think back to when you were dating. You would take a shower and put on perfume and your fancy underwear (we know you have done this, ladies). Then on your date you would touch and flirt – and lo and behold, you got laid. We hate to burst your bubble, but that was not spontaneous. That was well orchestrated.”
Fast forward five years. Now you are living together and this doesn’t happen as much. Unless, of course, you prioritize it. “Do you ever go to the gym without planning it in your day? No. Do you ever get lunch with your girls without scheduling it first? No. There is no harm in doing the same for sex,” Dr. Mintz says.
Scheduled Sex: Don’t Knock It Before You Try It
“For couples struggling with lack of sex in their relationship (especially because they are too busy, tired or stressed out), scheduled sex is often recommended by sex therapists,” Dr. Mintz explains. In fact, she likes to refer to them as ‘trystes.’ Sounds more sexy, right?
We tend to romanticize unexpected rendezvous, but anticipation can be electrifying! Think back to the dating scenario. As you get ready for an intimate evening the anticipation of what might happen excites you. Same goes for scheduled sex – when you choose to put energy toward it, it causes you to think about it and get ready for it (and that’s exciting).
“Living together creates shared stressors. That’s why you need to prioritize date night or your ‘trysts’,” Dr. Mintz says.
Another fun fact, sex therapists don’t recommend scheduling sex at night. Why? Because saying you are “too tired” becomes an excuse. Dr. Mintz recommends finding a time during the day, after dinner or hiring a babysitter to go out.
MA: Should the bed be a sacred space?
Dr. Mintz: In my opinion, it can be useful, but some couples successfully read together in bed – it just depends on their routine. More than that, I’d like people to stop thinking of bedtime as sex time. That puts a lot of pressure on the couple because one person may be ready to get it on, while the other is exhausted.
MA: Seventy-five percent of couples don’t go to bed at the same time. What is your opinion on going to bed at the same time?
Dr. Mintz: This really depends. What I would want to know is does the couple view getting in bed together as a time to take care of themselves or as couple time? I have seen couples with great relationships that do their own thing before bed and have sex a couple of times on the weekends. It’s about what works for the couple. Once again, sex doesn’t have to happen at bedtime.
MA: Are there psychological benefits of cuddling before bed?
Dr. Mintz: Yes, and physical benefits. Cuddling releases the hormone oxytocin we discussed earlier. It makes you feel content and sleepy.
MA: Are there benefits to “pillow talk” after sex?
Dr. Mintz: Absolutely. As a sex therapist, I advocate for couples to talk about the sexual encounter. Ask how was it? What would have made it better? What did you like?
MA: Sleep divorce has been a hot topic in the media recently. In your professional opinion, how does sleeping in separate rooms or beds impact a relationship?
Dr. Mintz: This is something I’d have to take case by case with different couples. I’d want to know what it means to them. Does it mean nothing – they’ve just become snickety sleepers? Or has there been a core change in the relationship?
In most cases, I try to work with couples to see if we can get them to sleep together because if a couple can work through their differences and stay in the same bed that is healthier for the relationship.
Sharing a bed is an intimate thing. Many times in marriages couples start to become more like roommates than lovers. What differentiates a marriage from a roommate situation is the fact that you share a bed and have sex. Maintaining these two things are important.
However, some couples have serious physical ailments that really necessitate sleeping alone. In those cases, it would be more harmful to the marriage for the couple to stay in the same bed because they wouldn’t feel well and be exhausted.
MA: What is the most important thing couples struggling in their sex life should know?
Dr. Mintz: If sexual problems aren’t addressed, they cause a lot of other problems. What most people don’t know is that sexual problems are some of the easiest problems to treat in therapy. Talk about them. Communicate. See if you can solve it. If you can’t, seek out a trained therapist. And don’t wait too long to do that!
For women who constantly feel too exhausted for sex, this is going to sound self-promoting but buy my book and I’ll tell you why. There have been four research studies done that show women who have read it increase their sexual desire. It’s a pretty cheap, easy intervention. Otherwise, seek a therapist.
Sleep and sex are both intimate parts of life. Remember, sex should bring you together, not push you apart.
Dr. Laurie Mintz, author, therapist, professor, and speaker, has committed her life’s work to helping people live more authentic, meaningful, and joyful lives through the art and science of psychology. As a tenured Professor at the University of Florida, she teaches the Psychology of Human Sexuality to hundreds of undergraduate students each year. She is the author of two sexual self-help books, both based in research findings. Her latest book, “Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters – and How to Get It,” is aimed at empowering women to reach orgasm. More pertinent to the connection between sleep and sex, is her first book, “A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex,” was written to help the countless women who say they are too exhausted to be interested in sex.