Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Dr. Kalmbach: As it happens, my research background is in sexual health, and my clinical work is in behavioral sleep medicine. Therefore, I’ve long been interested in the intersection between sleep and sexual response, though there has been little research in this area. With the growing recognition of a wide range of morbidities associated with poor sleep, coupled with the multifactorial etiology of sexual dysfunctions, I wanted to investigate whether sleep disturbance was associated with poorer sexual response. Using a 2-week daily diary approach in a sample of 171 young women, we found that longer reported sleep duration led to greater sexual desire the next day. This relationship was mirrored by finding that the likelihood of partnered sexual activity was increased following nights during which women slept longer. We also found an association between genital arousal and sleep length, though this relationship was more complex. Women reported greater vaginal arousal during sexual activity following nights of shorter sleep. However, women who slept longer on average reported better vaginal arousal than women who obtained less sleep on average. This dual relationship may reflect differential effects of a single night of sleep deprivations versus chronic sleep deprivation. However, I think more research is needed to delineate the underlying mechanisms of these relationships. Even so, I think it is notable that daytime sequelae of poor sleep (e.g., mood changes, fatigue) did not account for the relationships between sleep and sexual response.
Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?
Dr. Kalmbach: I think our findings may be most relevant to healthcare professionals assessing sexual dysfunctions. Given the wide variety of influences on sexual response, it may behoove clinicians to assess for sleep problems indicative of an underlying sleep disorder for women who present with complaints of low desire or arousal difficulties. Prior research has shown that sexual dysfunction rates are higher among men and women with comorbid sleep apnea. It is possible that other sleep disorders, such as insomnia, may also confer a risk factor for sexual dysfunction, though this has not yet been explored in the literature.
Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Dr. Kalmbach: Two areas that come to mind are the exploration of underlying mechanisms, and comorbidity/risk studies. Regarding the first, we found that longer sleep duration was associated with desire and genital arousal. However, it is unclear what about length of sleep is important for sexual response, given that we found that sleep-related daytime functioning (e.g., affect, fatigue) did not facilitate this relationship. Sleep duration can be related to the ability to maintain solid sleep, circadian misalignment, or even underlying sleep architectural characteristics. So, it is important for future research to understand what about sleep length, or what sleep length is related to, that drives the relationship between sleep duration and sexual response.
Second, as sexual dysfunction rates are higher among individuals with sleep breathing disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, do other sleep disorders–or even subclinical sleep disturbance–increase risk for sexual problems.
MedicalResearch.com Interview with: David A Kalmbach, PhD (2015). Women’s Sexual Desire May Be Sleep Dependent