Reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
The sleep erection: our unconscious’ best attempt at getting laid.
Nocturnal erections can feel like a real head-scratcher. Whether you’ve awakened to morning wood in the past or were informed by a partner that your erectile systems were on autopilot while the captain was sleeping, most men have had some experience with a penile erection associated with sleep time in their lives.
These sleep erections are totally normal, but they can also tell us vital information about our health — sexual or otherwise. In fact, in certain circumstances, they may even help you better understand your symptoms of sexual dysfunction.
Regardless of whether you’re here out of curiosity or concern, we’re happy to help answer your questions about bedtime boners.
Before we get into the useful information that sleep-related erections might provide about your health, though, the best place for us to start this conversation is actually at the beginning — why do they happen in the first place?
Sleep time erections — specifically, those which occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of your sleep cycles — are fairly common. They’re considered normal and totally involuntary (you can’t really control what stimulates you while you’re unconscious, after all).
There are several explanations for morning wood and sleep erections. Some of them are physiological, like inadvertent stimulation from turning on your sheets or a full bladder pressing on your sacral nerve (which is one of the sympathetic nerves that can cause sexual stimulation).
Others are psychological, like the occasional erotic dream, which can give you an erection and possibly even lead to ejaculation.
But the broadest and most sweeping explanation is that it has to do with your parasympathetic nervous system.
See, unlike your sympathetic nervous system (which controls your survival autopilot) your parasympathetic nervous system controls your pleasure and recharge autopilot. This one is responsible for systems like digestion, waste disposal and the system that tells you to be aroused.
Yes, the parasympathetic nervous system could also activate your sacral nerve. Though, it would do so just because it’s already active in other processes — similar to how a single light switch may control several lights.
That last part may have sounded scary to the non-electricians among us, but there are no wires getting crossed here and sleep erections (also sometimes called nocturnal penile tumescence) are not a sign of danger.
Nighttime erections and morning erections are signs that everything is working normally, actually. So, if they’re happening to you, congrats! Erections of all kinds and at all times are totally normal for boys and men of any age.
Put simply, there’s no connection between sleep erections and erectile dysfunction — erections at night are neither a symptom nor cause of erectile dysfunction.
They do, however, offer two key pieces of information for understanding erectile dysfunction based on whether or not they’re present alongside ED.
If a person with ED is having sleep erections or morning wood despite their performance issues, then it’s a strong signal that the cause of erectile dysfunction in that person’s case is more likely attributable to a psychological cause than a physiological, hormonal or other biological factor.
A person with ED who can get erect doesn’t have total dysfunction. The thing that disrupts normal function — which may be low sex drive, self-esteem, body issues or fear of intimacy — is the hurdle between opportunity and achievement.
In other words, guys, if it’s working while your brain is in rest mode or frolicking in dreamland, then your problem is something in your waking world.
A lack of morning erections and spontaneous erections, however, may confirm that something’s going wrong on both sides of the pillow.
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If you’re at a healthy weight, have good heart health and get regular erections when you’re sleeping, it could be a sign that mental health disorders are the cause. But that’s not something you can determine alone.
Determining your cause is best done with the support of a mental health professional who can help you explore those mental blocks and construct a way to manage them.
The same is true of biological causes, although any treatment for erectile dysfunction — like sildenafil (generic Viagra) or tadalafil (generic Cialis) — is behind the barrier of professional support.
Studies have shown that erectile function when sleeping would indicate a higher chance of a psychological cause (like depression), and if you do know that your unconscious penis is functioning just fine, that’s at least one piece of evidence that can help a healthcare professional determine the best way to treat you.
Getting a sleep erection is perfectly normal and healthy. We hope you have many more of them for many more years to come.
If, however, you’re getting more erections while asleep than while waking, it may offer good news and bad news about your sexual health.
If your unconscious is always ready but your conscious mind seems to have trouble getting started, that’s something you’ll want to discuss with a healthcare professional. At that point, it’s most likely a sign that there’s an issue — one you can actually address and clear up.
We know talking to a healthcare provider about your sexual function can feel embarrassing.
We also know how embarrassing it can be to have to call it quits in the intimate hours of the night, only to wake up and find out that your sleeping self had all the fun. That’s not what any guy — or their partner/s — wants.
If you’re ready to give your waking self priority on erectile performance and pleasure, talk to someone about treatment options for ED today. It’s a problem that doesn’t go away without treatment, so the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll have a solution.
Treat ED differently than your erection — don’t sleep on it.