First study in decades explores this health benefit of sex

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published May 31, 2019

Key Takeaways

People who engage in sexual activity before bed, especially activity culminating in orgasm, may achieve better sleep outcomes, according to the results of a cross-sectional survey published in Frontiers in Public Health.

“Little is known about the relationship between a common bedtime activity: sexual behavior and sleep,” wrote the authors, led by Michele Lastella, PhD, Appleton Institute for Behavioural Science, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia. “Given that both sex and sleep are essential for the maintenance of physiological and psychological well-being, surprisingly few studies have explored the possibility that sexual activities may be associated with better quality sleep.”

A total of 778 adults (442 women; average age: 34.5 years) completed an anonymous online survey that asked questions about demographics as well as the relationship between sexual activity and postcoital sleep.

Dr. Lastella and colleagues performed Chi square analyses to investigate potential gender differences among different sexual activities (ie, masturbation with and without orgasm, and sex with a partner with and without orgasm) and self-reported sleep. No gender differences in sleep quality and sleep onset were noted between men and women when self-stimulation or sex with a partner resulted in orgasm. According to previous research, this lack of difference may be attributed to the increased levels of oxytocin and prolactin produced following orgasm, which may induce a soporific effect.

In addition, more men than women reported better sleep quality after sex with a partner (which may or may not have resulted in orgasm). Although the reason for this difference was not explored in the study, the authors suggested that this discrepancy may be explained by a gender gap in orgasm frequency, in which men are more likely than women to achieve orgasm during sex with a partner.

Furthermore, the researchers did not identify any gender differences in the perceptions of the impact of masturbation on sleep quality or sleep onset. Although the percentage of respondents who perceived masturbation improved sleep quality and onset was lower than the perceived impact of sex with a partner, percentages rose slightly when self-stimulation resulted in orgasm, with the majority reporting improved sleep quality. This finding proffers further support for the hypothesis that orgasm—and not sexual activity—may facilitate better sleep in both men and women.

“Whilst orgasms with a partner appear to have the most benefit in terms of sleep outcomes, orgasms achieved through self-stimulation can also aid sleep quality and latency,” the researchers reported. “Engaging in safe and satisfying sexual activity (either alone or with a partner), together with other sleep hygiene strategies before attempting sleep, may offer the general adult population a healthy behavioral approach toward improving their subsequent sleep.”

Surprisingly, few studies have looked at the effects of sex on sleep. The combined release of oxytocin and prolactin, as well as the inhibition of cortisol after orgasm, could help facilitate sleep. Elevated oxytocin levels after sex, in particular, have been linked with a higher quality of life, a decrease in stress (ie, cortisol levels), and enhanced sleep quality in both men and women. Prolactin levels have also been demonstrated to rise after orgasm—especially with a partner—with this hormone linked to both quality of orgasm and sexual satisfaction. In the aggregate, these findings indicate that sexual activity may be part of a foundational neuro-hormonal mechanism that mediates sleep after sex.

The only study that has examined sleep after sex using polysomnography (the gold standard for measuring sleep) was performed by Brissette et al. They looked at the effects of solo masturbation on sleep latency and sleep architecture in five male subjects and five female subjects following masturbation with and without orgasm. The researchers found no differences in sleep onset or sleep duration between genders and across three conditions: no masturbation, masturbation with orgasm, and masturbation without orgasm. Of note, results of this study were published way back in 1985.

Looking forward, Dr. Lastella and coauthors concluded that two things must happen before the relationship between sleep and sex is fully understood: Objective physiological responses must be measured, and stigma surrounding this largely taboo topic must be reduced so that greater dialogue may take place.

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