It’s a question that’s been keeping (some of us) up at night: why do guys get sleepy after sex? Many men barely leave time for the bed sheets to settle before they make a beeline for the land of nod, but is there any scientific reason why one gender might be more predisposed to a post-sex snooze?
Well, there is, as it happens. Science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer took a look at the possible factors that could play a part in this phenomenon.
Melinda Wenner Moyer has a degree in molecular biology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She has written on science and medicine for titles including The New York Times, Popular Science and Discover. When she originally wrote this piece, she was working as an author for Scienceline, a project of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.
For many women, the correlation between sex and snoring is one of those annoying facts of life: no matter when passionate encounters occur, men always seem to fall asleep immediately afterwards. Dave Zinczenko, the author of "Men, Love and Sex: The Complete User Guide For Women," explained the phenomenon to Huffington Post writer Arianna Huffington this way: "Men go to sleep because women don’t turn into a pizza."
I doubt I am ever going to become a pizza, and I’ll never have the foresight to order one beforehand. So in lieu of a cure, a better explanation will have to do. Although women sometimes feel sleepy after sex, the phenomenon does seem more pronounced in men. What is it, then, that spirals them into the land of nod?
First, the obvious reasons for sex’s somnolent sway: the act frequently takes place at night, in a bed, and is, after all, physically exhausting (often more so for the man than the woman, although this certainly varies). So when sex is over, it’s natural for a guy to feel sleepy.
Secondly, research using positron emission tomography (PET) scans has shown that in order for a person to reach orgasm, a primary requirement is to let go of "all fear and anxiety." Doing so also tends to be relaxing and might explain the tendency to snooze.
Then there is the biochemistry of the orgasm itself. Research shows that during ejaculation, men release a cocktail of brain chemicals, including norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin, nitric oxide (NO), and the hormone prolactin. The release of prolactin is linked to the feeling of sexual satisfaction, and it also mediates the "recovery time" that men are well aware of—the time a guy must wait before "giving it another go." Studies have also shown that men deficient in prolactin have faster recovery times.
Prolactin levels are naturally higher during sleep, and animals injected with the chemical become tired immediately. This suggests a strong link between prolactin and sleep, so it’s likely that the hormone’s release during orgasm causes men to feel sleepy.
(Side note: prolactin also explains why men are sleepier after intercourse than after masturbation. For unknown reasons, intercourse orgasms release four times more prolactin than masturbatory orgasms, according to a recent study.)
Oxytocin and vasopressin, two other chemicals released during orgasm, are also associated with sleep. Their release frequently accompanies that of melatonin, the primary hormone that regulates our body clocks. Oxytocin is also thought to reduce stress levels, which again could lead to relaxation and sleepiness.
What about the evolutionary reasons for post-sex sleepiness? This is trickier to explain. Evolutionarily speaking, a man’s primary goal is to produce as many offspring as possible, and sleeping doesn’t exactly help in his quest. But perhaps since he cannot immediately run off with another woman anyway — damn that recovery time! — re-energizing himself via sleep may be the best use of his time.
And although there is conflicting information as to whether women feel sleepy after sex, a woman often falls asleep with the man anyway (or uses it for some key cuddling time), which is good news for him: it means she is not off finding another mate. When the man wakes up and she’s still there, he just might be ready to go again.
It’s also possible that sleepiness is just a "side effect" associated with a more evolutionarily important reason for the release of oxytocin and vasopressin. In addition to being associated with sleep, both chemicals are also intimately involved in what is called "pair bonding," the social attachment human mates commonly share. The release of these brain chemicals during orgasm heightens feelings of bonding and trust between sexual partners, which may partially explain the link between sex and emotional attachment. This bond is favorable should the couple have a baby, as cooperative child rearing maximizes the young one’s chances for survival.
The bottom line is this: There are many potential biochemical and evolutionary reasons for post-sex sleepiness, some direct and some indirect — but no one has yet pinpointed the exact causes. One thing, however, is certain: we females better get used to it, because it doesn’t look likely to change anytime soon.
I will leave frustrated American women with one final thought: if you are upset at the ubiquity of the post-sex snoring phenomenon, remember that things could be a lot worse. A recent survey of 10,000 English men revealed that 48 percent actually fall asleep during sex.
Talk about coitus interruptus!
Originally published on Live Science on Feb. 1, 2013 and updated on Aug. 24, 2022.
This answer was provided by Scienceline, a project of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.
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