Too Sleepy for Sex?

Ask yourself these four questions to stop sleepiness from stealing your sex life.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 11, 2010
5 min read

Too tired for sex? Join the club. Up to 50% of U.S. adults skip or avoid sex because they're too tired, recent polls show.

It’s no wonder. The workday can extend long into the night, many couples have children and pets to tend to, and everyone has diversions that tempt their attention away from their partners -- and from sleep.

"We’re a 24/7 society. We're burning the candle at both ends -- most of us -- so we are tired," says William Kohler, MD, director of Florida Sleep Medicine outside of Tampa. "The lack of sleep decreases our motivation to do various things."

Whatever the reasons we're dragging so much, sleepiness can kill desire. How can you get it back? Here are four questions to ask yourself to get back into the groove.

A good night's sleep every night -- more so than exercise and a healthy diet -- keeps our sexual engines humming, says Barry McCarthy, PhD, a Washington, D.C. sex therapist.

"Healthy people who have good sleep patterns are going to be more open to being sexual," McCarthy tells WebMD. Unfortunately, many Americans don't and aren't, he says.

"They don’t shut down an hour before getting ready for sleep. They’re on email, returning phone calls, doing projects, fighting with their kids. The idea of healthy sleep behaviors is not well established in our culture," McCarthy says.

Instead, make the last hour or so before bed a relaxing transition time. "If you’re going to sleep at 11, shut down activities at 10:15," McCarthy says. That means turning off the TV, wrapping up the day's hustle and bustle, and unwinding. In short, give yourself some chill-out time before you head to bed. That may mean letting some things wait until tomorrow. If you wait until everything is done, you'll cheat yourself out of good sleep.

Dennis Sugrue, PhD, a certified sex therapist in Bloomfield, Mich., says fatigue can become a "red herring" for a lack of interest in sex.

In many cases, it’s true. But Sugrue will first explore whether there are other medical or emotional factors that are poisoning desire -- anger and substance abuse, for example.

But more often than not, Sugrue says, tiredness rather than a lack of attraction is a legitimate excuse for sex avoidance.

"The bottom line is, to be sexual does require some energy. If someone is tired, it’s not surprising that it can be antithetical to having a strong sexual appetite," he says.

For example, Sugrue points to the two-income couple at the peak of their career. The wife may complain that she comes home after working all day to take up her next job -- making dinner, checking homework, doing dishes, folding laundry, and preparing the next day’s lunches.

"The last thing she wants to do is put on something from Victoria’s Secret and get into bed. It’s hard to argue that point," Sugrue says.

For men, who are slightly more likely to claim that work leaves them too exhausted for sex, sleep apnea may be the culprit, Sugrue says.

If it’s a lack of energy that’s causing the libido to lag, Sugrue says he’ll work with the couple to make sure desire doesn’t die in the interim.

"We want to make sure there’s an effort to be close, even if it isn’t in the throes of coitus. We’re trying to make sure that they’re not ignoring the relationship," he says. Reassuring the partner that he or she is attractive and being honest about being tired -- and of course, seeking treatment for a sleep disorder -- will help keep love alive.

Nighttime may simply not be the right time for sex for some people.

McCarthy suggests changing your routine to accommodate meaningful sex and sleep. Try sex in the morning, earlier in the evening, after a nap, or while the kids are at dance class or soccer practice.

Couples might also try cuddling rather than having intercourse in order to foster closeness and sleepiness -- even if one partner is feeling frisky. It’s important to respect the other’s needs and to recognize that intimacy isn’t always about sex, McCarthy says. "It’s not a question of quantity, but quality. Good quality experiences can facilitate good feelings and sleep."

If you’re too beat to generate a sexual spark off an otherwise loving relationship, and the obvious solutions -- go to bed earlier, wind down an hour before bed, curb your late-night TV habit -- haven't helped, you may want to consider these possible causes:

  • Sleep apnea, in which people briefly stop breathing for 10 or more seconds, is a possible culprit. "You could be waking up dozens of times a night, and you wake up in the morning feeling worse," Kohler says. "Sleep apnea contributes to depression, lack of energy, fatigue, and it can cause impotence." There are effective treatments, including CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), a device that forces air into the nose. Kohler says he encourages his overweight sleep apnea patients to shed pounds. That can cure the problem altogether.
  • Insomnia. "With insomnia, patients never say, ‘What the hell, I can’t sleep so I’ll just give my husband some snuggies.’ They are actually tired, they can’t get their mind shut off, and they lay there fretting about it. The last thing they’re interested in is sexy business," says Lisa Shives, MD, director of the Northshore Sleep Clinic in Evanston, Ill. "I’m guessing that people become very anxious and upset in bed, and bed becomes a very negative place."

Insomnia is more common than sleep apnea. A 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll showed that half of those surveyed reported having at least one symptom of insomnia at least a few nights a week. But many people don’t seek the help of a sleep specialist. Kohler suspects some self-medicate with sleeping pills or alcohol - both of which dampen sexual desire

Other sleep wreckers include thyroid problems, prostate problems that lead to frequent visits to the bathroom at night, depression, and some medications.