Do you remember being so in love that you hardly slept? Science is now providing some insight into how and why our sleep is affected when we fall madly in love. With Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, it seems an ideal time to highlight some of the intriguing research findings on the topic.
As you may know, falling in love involves feelings of exhilaration, intense passion, and euphoria, especially if the loved one reciprocates the passion. Of course, if the loved one doesn’t feel the same way, these feelings morph into desperation and heartbreak. But let’s not go there today.
Back to falling in love. Our energy skyrockets, we have heightened powers of concentration and persistent thoughts about the object of our affection. During this state our brains show heightened activity in areas that are rich in dopamine if scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with natural reward systems, those brain circuits that give us a sense of pleasure when we engage in behaviours related to survival, like eating, drinking and having sex. It is also the system that gets hijacked in addictions to various drugs. When we are in love our brain is in a pleasure state not unlike being high on drugs like cocaine. There are other neurobiological alterations that occur with passionate love, including an increase in certain hormones involved in the stress response (cortisol) and those implicated in bonding with your mate (vasopressin and oxytocin). This brain cocktail leaves us in a hypomanic-like condition. As with hypomania – a state of elevated mood, energy and activity that occurs with bipolar disorder – the need for sleep may be reduced when we are intensely in love. We spend plenty of time trying to be with our beloved, and we spend less time asleep.
Very few researchers have directly asked people who are in love about their sleep. A notable exception is Professor Serge Brand of the Psychiatric University Clinics at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He and his colleagues studied young people who were in “early-stage intense romantic love.”
Their study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2007, found that intensely in-love adolescents reported having shorter sleep (by about one hour) than their not-in-love counterparts. Furthermore, sleep was shortest in those who were most obsessively distracted by thoughts of their loved one.
Of interest: Although the infatuated ones had shorter sleep, it was of high quality. Professor Brand also co-authored two recent studies, both done in Iran, and published in the International Journal of Psychiatry and Clinical Practice (2011 and 2013) that found no sleep differences in adolescents based on their love status. The discrepancies between the Swiss and Iranian findings can perhaps be explained by differences in definitions of being in love (the Swiss definition was “early-stage intense romantic love;” the Iranian study definition was simply “in love”) and cultural differences (the sleep times of Iranian youth may be under greater parental control, the study posits).
These three studies are the only ones to be found on the topic of romantic love and sleep, and they’re all with adolescents. There seems to be no research whatsoever on the sleep of people over age 25 who are in love. You can fall in love at any age. So, here we have an empty research field. We can only guess at the effects on sleep of falling in love when we are no longer in the springtime of life. However, it is known that sleep tends to get shorter and more disrupted with each decade, so it is unlikely that when we fall in love at age 80 that our sleep will be tremendous. But you never know.
The upshot is that if you are crazily, intensely in love your sleep may be shorter than usual. You are probably too distracted to worry about it anyway, so don’t. Enjoy that natural dopamine high.
Dr. Judith R. Davidson is a clinical psychologist and sleep researcher. She works with the Kingston Family Health Team and Queen’s University at Kingston. She is the author of Sink into Sleep: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Reversing Insomnia. You can follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at @JudithRDavidson