One of the basic tenets of good sleeping habits is to use the bedroom and bed exclusively for sleeping, so the body associates being in bed with winding down and getting a good night’s rest. For most people, however, the bed is also used for another activity: the pleasurable act of sex. Does this present a potential conflict of interest?
Actually, it doesn’t—and in fact, for those with insomnia or difficulty sleeping, some in the healthcare community suggest that part of the problem may be having too little sex with a spouse or partner. According to a 2009 survey of over 400 British doctors, one in six recommended sex before bedtime as a way to improve insomnia symptoms. Interestingly, the group that believed in this approach the most was the older and generally more experienced doctors (fifty-five years old and older).
Sex: The Natural Stress Reliever
For many people, lying down in bed may be the first chance they’ve had all day to start relieving some of their stress. The body’s muscles may be tight and the brain may be tired from working hard all day.
Foreplay prior to sex can be a great way to help the body begin unwinding. This often takes the form of intimate touches, tickles, or even sensual massages that not only help relieve tension in the muscles, but reinforce an intimate bond between two partners that can prevent depression, loneliness, despair, and some of the other emotions that can accompany insomnia and make it difficult to treat.
One of the biggest benefits of sex prior to sleep is the relaxing feeling that comes with achieving an orgasm. Studies of brain functioning during sexual activities have found that in order for a person to achieve an orgasm, he or she must first reach a state where they have essentially let go of stresses, anxieties, worries, and so forth. Some of the biochemicals released during an orgasm—such as oxytocin and vasopressin—are often accompanied by the release of melatonin, which helps to regulate the body’s sleep/wake cycle. The hormone prolactin—which for men controls the length of “recharge time” needed before they are ready to achieve an orgasm again—also appears associated with sleep: animal studies have found that animals injected with prolactin become very tired shortly afterward.
Good Sleep = Good Sex?
Another way to look at the relationship between sex and sleep is to investigate what happens to intimacy when a person’s poor sleep is improved. This was done in a 2010 study that examined the sexual and intimate relationships of men who had their obstructive sleep apnea treated with Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). Comparing the results of intimacy rating surveys filled out before and after treatment, the researchers found that improved intimate and sexual relationships were associated with successful treatment, and the patients demonstrating the greatest degree of improvement were those who had more severe sleep apnea prior to treatment.