When we think about the factors that impact the quality of our sleep, our minds often drift toward stress, diet, screen time before bed, and physical activity. However, emerging research is now pointing to another fundamental aspect of our lives that could significantly sway our sleep quality — sex. Can sexual activity serve as a behavioral mechanism to improve sleep? A recent study published in the Journal of Sleep Research suggests that it can.
Emerging research suggests that sexual activity and non-sexual touch, triggering oxytocin release, hold the potential to positively impact sleep quality and sleep latency.
A recent study found that partnered sex leading to orgasm significantly reduces the time it takes for both men and women to fall asleep, hinting at the sleep-promoting effects of intimacy.
Oxytocin, known as the "love hormone," plays a pivotal role in strengthening emotional bonds and reducing stress, potentially contributing to improved sleep patterns.
While orgasm's hormone release is linked to sleep benefits, aspects such as relationship intimacy and security also play a role in enhancing sleep quality, offering natural avenues to better rest.
The study, carried out by researchers at the Department of Clinical Psychology and Experimental Psychopathology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, examined the relationship between sexual activities (both partnered sex and masturbation) and sleep quality.
“Aiming to investigate ways in which sexual activity can improve overall health, it was interesting for us to look at sleep, as sleep also, similar to sexual activity, affects all of us and is central to our health and quality of life,” Carlotta Oesterling, principal investigator and one of the authors of the study told Healthnews in an interview. She added, “Holding the large prevalence of insomnia and the connection between sleep and psychopathology in mind, it is great to be able to explore natural options that improve sleep.”
The longitudinal study involved 256 male and female participants, mostly students. They were asked to complete a set of questionnaires prior to the intervention phase, then for 14 days complete a Core Consensus Sleep Diary detailing their sexual activity and the perceived effects of sexual intercourse and masturbation — both with and without orgasm — on subsequent sleep latency and sleep quality.
Additionally, participants were asked about alcohol consumption, menstruation, and whether unusual events had occurred that might have influenced their sleep during the previous 24 hours.
As the analysis unfolded, a little shy of 100 participants was excluded due to factors such as having less than 50% of the diary completed (e.g., < 7 days), taking antidepressant medications, or indicating the use of hard drugs (e.g., cocaine, mushrooms, MDMA, speed). Thus, 2076 cases nested within 159 individuals (103 women, 53 men, 3 other) were analyzed.
The most significant finding of the study was that partnered sex leading to orgasm reduced the time it took for both men and women to fall asleep. In contrast, sexual activity without orgasm and masturbation (with or without orgasm) did not show similar effects on sleep.
The researchers discovered that it took individuals who engaged in partnered sex and achieved orgasm an average of 16 minutes to fall asleep. This figure was slightly higher for those who had sex without orgasm (17 minutes) and those who didn't engage in any sexual activity (20 minutes). For those who masturbated, the average time to fall asleep was 26 minutes. However, if the individual achieved orgasm through masturbation, the time decreased to 19 minutes.
Oesterling explained that the difference in sleep latency between reaching orgasm or not may not only be due to the hormones released with orgasm, but potential frustration with the lack of climax. “Besides the possible endocrine effects that remain to be established, sexual activity without orgasm can be accompanied by frustration or uncomfortable bodily sensations, as sexual arousal does not decrease as drastically as in the refractory period following orgasm,” she said. She noted that while it was shown that on average there are no negative effects, it has to be kept in mind that for a lot of individuals, it is normal to not experience an orgasm.
Do men fall asleep faster than women?
The results of the study challenged the popular belief about gender differences in the sleep-promoting effect of sexual activity. However, is it true that men fall asleep faster after sex? Oesterling says not necessarily, but it has to do with the difference in frequency of orgasm among men and women.
I no longer believe that there is a gender difference in this effect, a belief held by the general population.Carlotta Oesterling
Our results have shown that there is a huge difference in frequency of orgasm between men and women (orgasm occurrence twice as high in men, although we had about twice as many women in the sample).”
Other research referred to this gender gap in orgasm frequency, identifying a greater proportion of males who reported perceiving improved sleep quality and better sleep after engaging in sexual activity with a partner. That difference, however, was gone when sexual intercourse involved an orgasm with both genders.
“I think the notion that men fall asleep first developed because men experience an orgasm more frequently in heterosexual partnered sex, which is why they then experience the sleep-promoting effects of sexual activity more strongly and fall asleep, while sexual activity without orgasm has been perceived as having negative effects on sleep,” Oesterling explained.
The role of hormones
The study highlighted the role of hormones in connection to sex and sleep. Researchers hypothesized that the enhanced effect of partnered sex could be partly attributed to the neuroendocrine changes following intercourse-induced orgasm, combined with the beneficial effects of experiencing intimacy with a partner.
Orgasm leads to the release of two main hormones related to love and bonding: oxytocin, often referred to as the "love hormone," and prolactin, a hormone that affects sexual and reproductive health.
Oesterling underscored that what stood out the most to her was the fact that in the longitudinal study, sexual activity with a partner resulted in a stronger effect on sleep than masturbation, even if both resulted in orgasm.
This may be because there’s a major difference in how much of these hormones get released during sexual intercourse with orgasm and masturbation with orgasm. A study has shown that the level of prolactin increase following intercourse is 400% greater than that following masturbation.
If you are a woman who rarely or never orgasms, worry not, as intimacy and non-sexual touch may also benefit sleep quality. A gentle touch has the power to ignite a chemical cascade within us, fostering feelings of connection and intimacy.
A systematic review of 13 studies on this subject indicated that even non-sexual touch may have calming effects. Further research is needed, however, before conclusions on the link between non-sexual touch and sleep can be drawn.
Oxytocin, secreted by the brain's hypothalamus, extends its influence over a range of emotions and behaviors, from maternal bonding and social affiliation to the nurturing of romantic connections.
Scientific research has unveiled that even the most innocuous gestures — such as a hug, a hand on the shoulder, or a gentle caress — can catalyze the production and release of oxytocin. It fosters feelings of trust, empathy, and closeness. In addition to nurturing emotional bonds, it also actively reduces stress and anxiety. Thus, the potential connection to sleep.
When emotional equilibrium is achieved through the release of oxytocin, individuals are better poised to embrace relaxation, a critical precursor to sound sleep.
“Nevertheless, this shows that orgasm alone is not the only factor that promotes sleep, and aspects that accompany intimacy with a partner, for example feelings of security, intimacy, relationship bonding, physical activity may also be relevant,” Oesterling said.
Does sex help you sleep better?
Oesterling concluded that their study results “serve as a motivation to continually explore lifestyle and behavior to find natural ways to improve sleep.” She added that it shed light on the significant impact that sexual activity and sexual and relationship satisfaction can have on health and well-being.
As long as we experience it positively and possibly relax, we can benefit from it in terms of sleep.Carlotta Oesterling
While the amount of sexual activity that would be beneficial before sleep was not specifically examined in this study, researchers emphasized that the most important factor is that both individuals feel safe and comfortable.
After all, “sexual activity is an opportunity to connect with oneself or one's partner, experience closeness, and enjoy intimacy".
Further research in this area, especially with more data such as biometrics and hormone tests, can continue to enhance our understanding of the intricate relationship between sexual activity and sleep, potentially opening up new avenues for improving sleep quality and overall health naturally.
- Journal of Sleep Research. The influence of sexual activity on sleep: A diary study.
- Frontiers in Public Health. Sex and Sleep: Perceptions of Sex as a Sleep Promoting Behavior in the General Adult Population.
- Journal of Sleep Research. Associations between tactile intimacy and sleep quality in healthy adults: A systematic review.
- Biological Psychology. The post-orgasmic prolactin increase following intercourse is greater than following masturbation and suggests greater satiety.
- The Journal of Sexual Medicine. Variation in Orgasm Occurrence by Sexual Orientation in a Sample of U.S. Singles.
- Sexuality Research and Social Policy. Sexual Pleasure Matters (Especially for Women) — Data from the German Sexuality and Health Survey (GeSiD).
- Nature. Neuroscience: The hard science of oxytocin.
- Sleep Science. Sleeping together: understanding the association between relationship type, sexual activity, and sleep.