By Michael J. Breus, PhD, ABSM
I was pleased to read this recent blog post, which addresses the link between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and sexual function in both men and women. In general, we don’t talk nearly enough about the detrimental effects of sleeplessness and sleep disorders on sexual relationships. As I wrote recently, science is increasingly focusing its attention on the hormone testosterone—which is affected by sleep and, in turn, affects sexual function—as an important factor in the sexual problems associated with sleeplessness.
A great deal more attention and study have been paid to the effects of sleep apnea on men’s sex lives, but the effects of sleep apnea on women’s’ sexual function has received comparatively little research attention. I’ve written before about how sleeplessness can inhibit a woman’s sex life, but we continue to rely on relatively little scientific knowledge of the impact of disorders such as sleep apnea on sex and intimacy for women. It’s welcome news, then, to see another recent study that examined the effects of obstructive sleep apnea on women’s sexual function.
This study included 80 women between the ages of 28-64. The women were all diagnosed with sleep apnea but had received no treatment for their condition. They responded to three questionnaires that addressed sexual function and sexual satisfaction, as well as overall life satisfaction. Their answers were compared to responses from 240 women who did not have sleep apnea. What did researchers find?
- Women with untreated sleep apnea were at significantly greater risk for sexual problems, related both to sexual function and sexual satisfaction
- Women with OSA also reported consistently lower scores on the overall life satisfaction questionnaire
- The negative effects of OSA on sexual function do appear to be affected by the severity of the sleep apnea—this means, among other things, that even mild OSA can have a disruptive effect on a woman’s sex life.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a serious disorder, which puts its sufferers at increased risk of a litany of health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease. It’s also a sleep disorder that remains significantly under-diagnosed, perhaps especially for women. Among sleep disorders, OSA often is particularly—and incorrectly—thought of as a “men’s issue,” which likely accounts for the difference in the amount of attention that has been paid to its effects on men’s sexual function versus women’s. Numerous studies have shown that sleep apnea, untreated, can have serious consequences for men’s sexual function. One study showed that men with erectile dysfunction are more than twice as likely to have OSA than those without—and the more serious the erectile dysfunction, the more likely it is that the man also has sleep apnea.
But sleep apnea is not just a men’s disorder. There are a number of lifestyle choices that can help protect the quality of your sleep (and your health in general) and diminish your risk of developing OSA:
Keep your weight in a healthy range. Excess weight is a primary risk factor for sleep apnea in both men and women. Keeping your weight in check is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself against developing sleep apnea as you age. And of course, maintaining a healthy weight confers a host of other protective health benefits. What’s one powerful tool in keeping your weight down—or losing weight, if you need to? You guessed it—a good night’s sleep.
Don’t smoke. This one should be beyond obvious. Smoking is a dangerous, potentially deadly habit. No one should smoke. Among its hazards, smoking increases the risk of OSA. There is also evidence that the combination of smoking and obstructive sleep apnea creates a particularly heightened risk of cardiovascular disease.
Get regular exercise. Exercise will help you keep your weight in check and also enhances the overall quality of your sleep. Exercise early in the day if you can, and outdoors when possible—the exposure to sunlight helps strengthen circadian rhythms that govern our sleep/wake cycle. For people who are treating sleep apnea with a CPAP device, there’s evidence that the combination of CPAP and exercise are particularly effective together in alleviating sleep apnea.
There is good news for women—and men—who are already suffering from sleep apnea. There are safe and effective treatments, particularly the CPAP—a device that’s worn while sleeping and keeps the airway from closing—that can diminish or alleviate sleep apnea, and don’t have to interfere with intimacy.
The relationship between sleep and sex needs more attention and more research—especially when it comes to issues particular to women. The basic truth, for everyone? Improving the quality of your sleep is likely to benefit your sex life.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™
Has sleep apnea negatively affected your life? Share your stories in the comments below or in our Sleep Disorders Community.