How Sleep Leads to Better Sex: Five Findings

Indiana University researcher Debby Herbenick on the powerful connection between sleep and sex.

If you’ve ever had trouble sleeping, chances are someone has told you to move your television, laptop, or work out of the bedroom. One’s bed, it’s been said, should be reserved for two things: sleep and sex. But what happens when it doesn’t get much of either?

Sarah Jessica Parkers new movie, I Don’t Know How She Does It, broaches this question—one I’m often asked about, as a sex researcher and educator at Indiana University. Almost every trailer for the movie features a scene in which Kate (Parker) and her husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), flirtatiously hint about having sex. Kate has returned home from a work trip and, while clearly exhausted, insists she’s not too tired—except, moments later, she’s passed out in their bed. Indeed, the sleep-over-sex scene is familiar to movies (there’s a similar one in last summer’s Hall Pass, except the wife fakes sleep to avoid sex), and to many of our personal lives. Who isn’t juggling some combination of kids, pets, work, school, friends, and social obligations?

Still, not everyone realizes just how big a role sleep plays in maintaining our sex drive and performance. According to a 2005 national poll, as many as one third of married or cohabitating adults felt that their romantic relationships were adversely impacted by their own or their partner’s sleep problems—such as insomnia or snoring—or sleepiness. New mothers with low sexual interest reported in at least one recent study that a key cause was being tired (the vast majority woke up at least once per night to take care of their baby). And in other research, people with sleep apnea were found to have more difficulties with sexual function.

The good news? If you get more sleep, you can rev up your sex drive. In a 2011 study, for example, when patients with chronic sinus problems were treated, both their sleep and sex lives improved. If you’re low on sexual desire, before begging your doctor for hormone testing or a prescription, ask yourself if you’ve been sleeping through the night—and consider these five findings:

1. We can stash sleep away.A game-changing study published in a 2009 issue of Sleep found that we can effectively save up our sleep. In the study, individuals who “banked” their sleep ahead of time by sleeping a little extra each night experienced fewer of the negative side effects of sleep deprivation during a week in which their sleep was severely restricted. Imagine how this might transfer to any area of our lives, including our sex lives. If you know you’re up against a tough week ahead (international flights, 12- or 14-hour work days), try to sleep longer on the nights leading up to the ones in which you’ll be struggling to get your full seven or eight hours of sleep. Your libido will thank you.

2. Laptops may be to blame. According to a recent survey by the National Sleep Foundation, about two thirds of Americans report using their laptops or computers a few nights per week in the hour before bed—which is ill-advised, as the artificial light can suppress melatonin, a hormone linked to sleep. In the hour before going to sleep, try to wind down without the television or a laptop.

3. Pets can be the problem.That’s right: your pets. In one study, researchers found that a sizable number of patients at a sleep-disorder clinic were letting a pet sleep in their bed. And in my own research, a number of cat and dog owners reported being woken up at least once per night by their pet. Try to train your pet to sleep in a crate (dogs) or another room (cats). Not only will that make time for you to sleep soundly, but it will also make more room in the bed for you and your partner to have sex without worrying about a dog’s awkward stares or a cat batting its paws at you.

4. Women are hit harder than men.Given that a woman’s sexual desire tends to be more closely tied to her emotions than a man’s—and that sleep helps us better regulate our emotions—it’s perhaps no surprise that lack of sleep can affect women more than men as well. Some research found that even among exhausted new parents, men tend to get less sleep than women do—and yet, new dads often have greater sexual desire than new moms, according to other studies. So, guys: no use comparing your sleep schedule to your girlfriend’s or wife’s when trying to persuade her to have sex. You’re probably not going to win.

5. Like sex, sleep should be about quality—not just quantity.Although aiming for seven or eight hours of sleep is a good goal, aiming for high-quality sleep is an even better one. Which is often easier said than done: In one study, individuals going through a divorce experienced fewer Delta waves, compared to individuals whose divorce was a done deal (suggesting that the former were short-changed in the area of deep, restorative sleep). Also, consider that close to two thirds of American adults sleep with a partner. Trading up your mattress for one that is more stable and less likely to move when your partner moves is a wise idea.

More sleep is no guarantee that you’ll have more sex, but if you’re getting good quality sleep then, at the very least, you’ll be more likely to feel rested, alerted and ready to have a nongrumpy conversation with your partner about your sex life. Decades ago, pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey noted that basic lifestyle factors (like sleep, eating, and exercise) are important to our sex lives—and yet we’re still struggling against basic biology when we deny ourselves the opportunity to feel well-rested.

The bottom line? Vibrators, lubricants, and other sex toys all have their place, but getting a good night’s sleep may be one of the oldest and more under-utilized sexual techniques around.