The Surprising Link Between Not Getting Enough Sleep & Sexual Health

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy

It probably doesn't surprise you to hear this, but sleep is very, very important. Besides being the powerhouse miracle fuel behind everything we do, sleep keeps our hormones balanced, rhythms in sync, and our egos sane. And now, according to new research, we have reason to believe that sleep influences our sex lives (or at least, teenagers' sex lives). Go figure.

A new study from the American Psychological Association found that lack of sleep can increase the likelihood of teens engaging in risky sexual behaviors. These unsafe sexual behaviors included not using condoms and having sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

In other words, not getting enough sleep compromises our judgment, and that extends to our sex lives—and it just so happens that teenagers are one age group that consistently doesn't sleep enough.

"Teens by and large are not getting the recommended eight to 10 hours of sleep a night, due to a number of reasons, including biological changes in circadian rhythms, early school start times, balancing school and extracurricular activities, and peer social pressures," says Wendy M. Troxel, lead author of the study. "Insufficient sleep may increase the risk for sexual risk-taking by compromising decision-making and influencing impulsivity."

Troxel and her team analyzed data from "a large, long-term study of 1,850 racially and ethnically diverse adolescents and young adults in Southern California." The average participant age was 16 years old when the study began and 19 years old when it ended—data was collected four times between 2013 and 2017.

Participants reported their sleep schedules and noted whether or not they had difficulty sleeping in the weeks prior to taking the survey. They were also required to report whether they used alcohol, marijuana, or other substances immediately before or during sex, and whether they used protection.

The results were eye-opening: Teens who consistently didn't get enough sleep were nearly two times as likely to have unsafe sex than those who slept more (specifically those who caught up on sleep during the weekend).

"Teens who were short weekday and short weekend sleepers were not getting adequate sleep during the school week and were not catching up on sleep on the weekends, and thus were chronically sleep-deprived," Troxel added.

Troxel emphasizes the unsettling results of the study and warns of the consequences of risky sexual behavior—including serious health concerns, like increased risk of sexually transmitted infections like HIV.

While acknowledging that most U.S. teens must adhere to early school start times, she urges parents, teachers, clinicians, and policymakers to prioritize sleep and put an end to chronic sleep deprivation in teens.

"Our recommendation is for parents and teens to find a middle ground, which allows for some weekend catch-up sleep, while maintaining some level of consistency in sleep-wake patterns," she said. "We also need to encourage school districts to consider delaying school start times because this could make a substantial difference in helping teens get adequate sleep."

If you, too, have trouble sleeping, try changing up your sleep environment, exercising with sleep in mind, or ditching your technology. It could be the difference between a good and bad sexual decision.

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