When Sleep Problems Cause Sex Problems

Lack of sleep can wreak havoc on sex, relationships, and your social life.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 17, 2010

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.

Insomnia and Social Life

People with insomnia are also less likely to engage in social activities. According to the 2009 annual poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, people with insomnia and other sleep disorders are three times as likely as others to skip leisure activities because of sleepiness.

“People will say they avoid evening social engagements because they are concerned that it will disrupt their sleep schedule,” Siebern says. “They begin to accommodate their sleep loss by rearranging or avoiding activities.”

But Gehrman believes this social withdrawal may partly be because people who are sleep deprived get less enjoyment out of life in general. “Sleep deprivation actually decreases our experience of positive emotions,” he says. “It reduces their intensity.”

Some of the effects of sleep loss -- anxiety, loss of libido, loss of interest in once pleasurable activities – if persistent are also signs of depression. Over time, lack of sleep from sleep disorders can contribute to depression, and depression can cause or aggravate sleep disorders. Depression can also put a strain on family life and other personal relationships.

Lack of Sleep: How Work Relationships Suffer

Sleep loss impairs attention, alertness, concentration, memory, reasoning, problem solving, and response time. In other words, it can wreak havoc on work performance. Add these symptoms to mood problems, and work relationships can take a dive.

“People are often concerned about their lowered productivity and about their boss or co-workers taking notice of it,” Siebern says. “And the effects of loss of sleep on mood -- increased irritability, frustration, and so on -- can impact work relationships.”

Estranged Bed Fellows: Sleep Therapy for Spouses

Over time, the sleep-loss issues that come between spouses or partners can snowball into some pretty formidable relationship problems. Gehrman says that’s why he often encourages patients who come in for treatment at the Penn Sleep Centers to bring their spouse or partner.

“When they do, they can really see how insomnia has become a dividing factor in their relationship,” Gehrman says. “First, because of ongoing irritability and mood issues. Second, because their partner, who often sleeps like a rock, just doesn’t understand why sleep is having such a significant impact on that person’s life. And when it gets to the point where the person who is sleeping poorly wants to turn down social activities at night, it just adds fuel to the fire.”

Show Sources


Lavie, P. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism; vol 87( 7): pp 3394-3398.

Buckner, J.D. Depression and Anxiety, 2008; vol 25(2): pp 124-130.

Phil Gehrman, PhD, CBSM, assistant professor of psychiatry and clinical director, Behavioral Sleep Medicine program, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Allison T. Siebern, PhD, fellow, Insomnia and Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program, Stanford University School of Medicine, Sleep Medicine Center, Redwood City, Calif.

Robert Thayer, PhD, professor of psychology, California State University, Long Beach.

Sleep Disorders Institute: “Insomnia.”

JStor: “Abstracts: 5th Annual Conference of the International Society for Quality of Life Research.”

National Sleep Foundation: “2009 Sleep in America Poll Highlights and Key Findings,” “Depression and Sleep.”

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