An estimated 30 percent of Americans have trouble falling or staying asleep. Insomnia reduces libido, impairs sexual energy and function, and raises risk of anxiety and depression—both sex-killers. In addition, the medications used to treat sleep problems may independently impair lovemaking.
The Downside of Light Bulbs
One man is largely to blame for chronic sleep deprivation around the world: Thomas Edison. Before electric lighting, a 1910 survey showed that Americans slept an average of nine hours a night. Then in 1913, Edison introduced his light bulb. People worldwide started staying up later—and sleeping less.
There is no “normal” amount of sleep. Individual needs vary. Some people say they do fine on five or six hours a night. But a good deal of sleep research shows that short-sleepers may be kidding themselves. Sleep scientists generally agree that to function optimally in work and play, the vast majority of adults need at least seven hours a night—and it’s not unusual to need eight or more.
There are different levels of sleep. The deepest sleep is most restorative. Unfortunately, with age, time spent in deepest sleep declines.
First-line advice for improving sleep involves familiar health practices: Get regular, moderate exercise. If you use tobacco, quit. Nicotine is a stimulant. Limit alcohol, which disrupts sleep cycles, often causing wake-ups in the wee hours.
More Sleep, More Libido, and Better Sex
University of Michigan researchers conducted a two-week survey of sleep duration and sexual function among 171 healthy, non-depressed women, For 14 consecutive mornings, they completed a sleep-and-sex questionnaire. As sleep time increased, so did the women’s libidos and genital sensitivity. Every one-hour increase in sleep correlated with a modest but statistically significant increase in the likelihood of partner lovemaking the following day.
The Sexual Peril of Obstructive Sleep Apnea
One very prevalent sleep problem is a strong risk factor for erectile dysfunction (ED)—obstructive sleep apnea. The cause is excess tissue in the throat, often linked to aging (loss of muscle tone in the throat) or carrying extra pounds (more throat tissue). The hallmark symptom is loud snoring punctuated by choking silences. During those silences, flabby or excess throat tissue blocks the airway, momentarily interrupting breathing. This sets off biological alarms that rouse the sleeper, which restores normal breathing. But people with apnea may have their sleep interrupted a dozen times a night. That frequency of rousings destroys sleep and substantially increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and ED. Chinese researchers analyzed nine studies involving 1,275 participants. Apnea doubled the risk of sex problems in all genders—erectile dysfunction in men and several sexual difficulties in women: libido loss, decreased self-lubrication, and extended time to orgasm or no orgasms at all.
If your bedmate says you snore with periodic silences, ask your doctor for a sleep study. This involves spending a night at a sleep lab wired up to monitors that can definitively diagnose obstructive apnea. If you sleep alone and regularly doze or feel drowsy during the day, a sleep study might also be indicated.
Sleep apnea can be effectively treated with a device that gently pushes air down the throat, a continuous positive-airway pressure (C-PAP) machine. The steady air pressure prevents the collapse of throat tissue. The airway stays open, and sleep disruption ends. Swedish researchers prescribed C-PAPs for 401 men with apnea and ED. Their sexual function—and general quality of life—improved significantly. A Chinese study of 207 men with apnea and ED showed similar results.
Unfortunately, C-PAP machines are cumbersome. Users must sleep with a mask covering the nose and mouth. Some people can’t stand this. Calling all inventors: The world needs a better C-PAP machine, one that’s smaller, lighter, and more comfortable to use. Until then, sleep experts urge patience and perseverance. After a while, most C-PAP users adjust, and feel much more awake and productive—and sexually energetic, functional, and happy.
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Liu, L. et al. “Sexual Dysfunction in Patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2015) 12:1992.
Petersen, M. et al. “Sexual Function in Male Patients with Obstructive Sleep Apnea After 1 Year of CPAP Treatment,” Clinical Respiratory Journal (2013) 7:214.
Zhang, X.B. et al. “Erectile Dysfunction and Sexual Hormone Levels in Men with Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Efficacy of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2016) 45:235.