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When Sleep Problems Cause Sex Problems

Lack of sleep can wreak havoc on sex, relationships, and your social life.
By Camille Peri
WebMD Feature

By the time people with sleep problems come to the Penn Sleep Centers at the University of Pennsylvania, many of them are no longer sleeping with their spouses.

“People who have trouble sleeping often develop elaborate routines over time,” says Phil Gehrman, PhD, CBSM, assistant professor of psychiatry and clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “They become very sensitive to anything they think might threaten their sleep. And one of the things that can disturb sleep is a bed partner.”

Not surprisingly, sleeping in separate beds or bedrooms doesn’t usually bode well for a marriage. And that’s just one of the ways that chronic sleep loss can take a toll on people’s family, work, sex, and social lives. 

No Sex, Please -- We’re Sleep Deprived

Sleep disorders and chronic sleep loss can hit the sack hard in another area: sex. Both Gehrman and Allison T. Siebern, PhD, a fellow in the Insomnia and Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center, say sleep-deprived men and women report problems with sex.

“Lack of sleep can lead to low energy, fatigue, and sleepiness,” says Siebern. “This may affect libido and/or decrease interest in sex.”

Robert Thayer, PhD, a professor of psychology at California State University in Long Beach and a mood researcher, believes that the combination of low energy and increased tension caused by lack of sleep -- a situation he calls “tense tiredness” -- can also lead to sexual dysfunction.

“People who experience tense tiredness are too anxious to relax,” Thayer says. “Tension and anxiety are very basic to sexual dysfunction most of the time. That increases as energy decreases.”

Sleep Apnea and Men’s Libido

Men with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), an inability to breathe properly during sleep, commonly report low libidos and sexual activity. This may be because OSA may be associated with lower testosterone levels in some men. A 2002 study of men at the Technion Sleep Laboratory in Israel found that nearly half of those who suffered from severe sleep apnea also secreted abnormally low levels of testosterone during the night.

Sleepy and Grumpy: How Personal Relationships Are Affected

Sleep loss can make you quarrelsome and less able to cope with life’s ups and downs. “Patients with sleep disorders often report mood changes such as increased irritability or frustration,” says Siebern. “This can impact their interactions with spouses, children, and friends.”

Parents who don’t get enough sleep commonly worry that they are not spending enough time with their children or engaging with them enough because of fatigue, Siebern adds.

Unfortunately, the time of day when mood problems tend to be worse may also be the time of day when your children return from school or you have alone time with your  spouse. “As people are increasingly sleep starved, they suffer from lack of energy late in the afternoon or evening,” Thayer says. “They become more vulnerable to tension, anxiety, and stress at those times.”

According to the Sleep Disorders Institute, people with insomnia -- an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep long enough to be rested -- say they have a difficult time dealing with even minor stress. They also have more problems relating to other people in social and work settings than those without insomnia. Some research shows that people with insomnia generally have a lower quality of life than people who do not have sleep difficulties.

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