How the Night Shift Affects Your Sex Life and Sexual Health
Working the night shift can pose a number of challenges in your life, from needing to adjust your sleep schedule in order to be present and awake at night, to finding time to maintain an active social life with others.
Unsurprisingly, it can also be deleterious to your sex life and sexual health.
While it's undoubtedly true that working the night shift can negatively impact your sexual health, there are some strategies you can employ to combat its effects and maintain a vibrant, satisfying sex life.
How the night shift impacts your sexual health
It's important to establish that the night shift's impact on sexual health is a real, perhaps common, issue for many people. In fact, about 15 million people hold shift work jobs in the United States, according to Betsy Greenleaf, D.O., the first board-certified female urogynecologist in the U.S. and a podcast host, best-selling author and CEO of the Pelvic Floor Store.
Shift workers include employees who work at night, those who permanently work the "graveyard shift" and others who have rotating shifts. In the latter category, employees may be required to occasionally work the day shift but also fill in on the graveyard shift when necessary.
The circadian rhythms in our body control our natural sleep-wake cycles along with many other biological processes that occur in a 24-hour cyclical pattern, such as metabolism and hormonal release. Greenleaf, who's based in New Jersey, said there are two primary factors we currently believe govern our body's circadian rhythm: exposure to daylight and our microbiome.
"Going against these natural rhythms can place stress on the body, affecting a lot more than being tired," she noted. "Shift work can decrease life span and squelch hormone production, leading to sexual dysfunctions and infertility."
From a physiological perspective, how exactly does shift work cause these physical issues?
While the sympathetic nervous system is designed to ensure our survival, it can get inappropriately activated by other sources of stress.
Greenleaf explained the body normally heals, digests and produces sex hormones when relaxed through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. However, when stressed, the body's sympathetic nervous system ("fight or flight") is activated. This stress can come from a number of factors or situations, including illness, emotional strain, anxiety and worry—and also shift work.
"The sympathetic nervous system keeps us alive when we are under immediate threat, such as a cave person being surprised by a lion," she said. "In this case, we would either fight the lion, run away or stay so incredibly still that the lion would not see us. The sympathetic nervous system is only supposed to be activated for short periods of time and then return to a state of relaxation. However, in modern life, stressors keep this sympathetic system revved up. This diverts all of our hormones and energy from digestion and reproduction to the production of stress hormones."
While the sympathetic nervous system is designed to ensure our survival, it can get inappropriately activated by other sources of stress—those that aren't true risks to our lives—such as working the night shift.
Greenleaf explained that being in a constant state of sympathetic nervous system activation can take a significant toll on your sex hormones.
"Our sex hormones—such as testosterone, estrogen and progesterone—are actually converted into stress hormones like cortisol and cortisone," she said. "In return, our libido suffers, fertility suffers, and in women, even the menstrual cycle can be thrown off. Additionally, this bodily stress can lead to imbalances of the gut microbiome and further bodily inflammation that can add to the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illness. Not to mention that shift work affects sleep cycles, memory and brain function, and since our brain is our most important sex organ, sexy times can't occur if the brain is fatigued."
How the night shift negatively impacts your sex life
Elyssa Helfer, M.A., L.M.F.T., a clinical sexologist and sex therapist in Los Angeles and founder of the Elevated Healing Center, said there are several ways working the night shift can impact a person's sex life.
The primary, perhaps most obvious, conflict is typically the incongruous schedules between partners when one works a night shift and the other works a day shift.
"In order to engage in partnered sex, time must exist for both or more partners to be not only in the same place at the same time but to have the energy, enthusiasm and emotional presence to engage in sex," Helfer explained. "Consensual, connected sex requires not just the presence of body but the presence of mind, and when one partner is working the night shift, it is likely that someone involved will be tired or disconnected simply due to their schedule."
A healthy sex life in a relationship involves both partners having available time for intimate activities, and ensuring their energy and desire in those pockets overlap. When this isn't the case, it can prove problematic.
On the time side, Helfer said it can be challenging to find compatible times that occur frequently enough to satisfy the sexual needs and interests of both partners. Partners who are in relationships with someone who works the night shift often need to be more deliberate and mindful about making time for physical intimacy.
"This can look like scheduling frequent date nights, engaging in deep conversations, encouraging and experiencing new adventures, and seeing our partners in their element," Helfer suggested. "By working the night shift, the opportunities to create these intimate contexts are decreased, which can directly impact both the quality and quantity of sex."
Unsurprisingly, the challenges posed by working the night shift on a person's sex life are not confined to people in relationships.
"For those who are single, the ability to find and connect with lovers is substantially diminished as it becomes more challenging to schedule times to meet," Helfer said. "While integrating the use of dating apps can be a helpful way to meet folks, working an overnight schedule may conflict with the ability to schedule dates and quality time together."
Tips to minimize the negative effects of the night shift
Helfer recommended that while it may not sound very appealing to schedule sex, this practice is often the best way to mitigate any impact of irregular schedules and shifts on your sex life. She suggested that couples do a weekly check-in where they discuss how they're feeling in the relationship and also plan where they can spend some quality time together in the week ahead.
"For those who work opposite schedules, determining where they may have some time to connect intimately can be crucial," she noted. "While sex may not necessarily occur during that time, knowing that it exists and can be something that the couple looks forward to can be enough to continue feeling connected with their partner."
Helfer also advocated that couples who are dealing with limited opportunities for sexual activity due to conflicting schedules try to get creative with their sex to maximize the experience.
"Roleplaying, integrating toys and finding new places to have sex around the home are all ways to spice up a 'quickie,' if that's the only time available," she said.
You shouldn't neglect the value of personal pleasure in your sex routine, especially if you aren't getting enough sexual release and pleasure times with your partner.
"There are several benefits to masturbation that can contribute to someone's overall health and well-being," Helfer explained. "Thus, if scheduling challenges are getting in the way of partnered sex, it may be time to shift the focus onto solo sex."
In terms of optimizing your sexual health, Greenleaf said the most important thing to do is to try to reduce additional stress on the body because stress affects hormone production and the gut microbiome, which in turn can dampen the sex drive.
Here are her tips to reduce stress:
- Engage in relaxing activities such as meditation to lower cortisol levels.
- Exercise regularly to maintain overall health.
- Get at least eight hours of sleep and stay hydrated.
- Keep other chronic medical conditions under control to decrease the stress of disease.
- Stay away from inflammatory foods such as sugar, gluten and processed foods. Eat whole foods, fiber and fermented foods to maintain gut health.
How the night shift affects overall health
In addition to having potentially negative effects on your sex life, working the night shift can have adverse effects on overall health, too. For example, sleep, diet and nutrition, and energy metabolism can potentially be adversely affected by changes to your circadian rhythm.
For some people who work the night shift, it can be difficult to get enough sleep during the day. Helfer explained that having to sleep during the day can potentially conflict with maintaining other important elements that support optimal physical and mental health.
"Office hours for medical and mental health practitioners typically follow more traditional schedules, meaning those who work the night shift may need to sacrifice sleep in order to attend these appointments," she said.
"When we think about the tasks that are often required to maintain even a basic level of functioning, most occur during the day, whether that be getting groceries, going to the gym, attending our dreaded dentist appointments and more," she added.
"These factors are not even considering the emotional toll that can be taken from isolation and lack of connection with partners, friends and families," Helfer explained. "Birthday parties, various events and several activities involving our social circle often occur during the times when someone who works the night shift may need to be sleeping, thus, impacting relationships."
Helfer noted that working the night shift does not automatically mean your sex life will cease to exist or fail to meet the quality standards it once did. However, it does mean new intentions and behaviors may be required, along with a shift in expectations for your sex life.
"It's easy to get tripped up when going through transitional periods, but we must remember that just because something will not be the same as it once was, that does not automatically indicate that it will be worse," she advised. "When a major schedule shift occurs, we have an opportunity to look at our new sexual canvas and create a brand-new picture, which can be as beautiful, connecting and fulfilling as the one before. In fact, it may be even better."