Most men would agree that on some days, "waking up is the second hardest thing in the morning", yes we’re referring to morning erections. You're asleep on your bed and when you roll over on your stomach, suddenly your penis feels like a ruler stabbing your pelvis and then you're forced to wake up; yes ladies, morning boners aren't as pleasurable as you think they might be. Men can all agree that the worst part about morning wood is urinating as you need to strategically place your body above the seat so that you don't end up creating a mess. For the most part, waking up with a ‘tent pitched in their shorts’ is a nuisance for men, but it can come in handy if you want to satisfy your partner with some early morning sex, a rather energetic start to the day that will keep your spirits high.
But what is the science behind morning boners? We know that erections are important for sex but why do they occur even when the person doesn't feel sexually aroused consciously? Well, unlike the secrets of the universe, this mystery is solvable, scientists have identified several possible reasons behind the occurrence of morning erections and also stated that it is a sign of good health.
Reasons why you wake up with morning erections
Morning wood is scientifically known as nocturnal penile tumescence (NPT) and there are multiple reasons why you wake up with it. According to Healthline, it can occur due to the simple reason of physical stimulation in your sleep. So, your eyes may be shut but your body is still aware of other people's touch. For example, if you or your partner accidentally grazes or touches your genitals, you can become erect. Your body just reacts to it regardless of your consciousness!
Another reason is testosterone- the sex hormone, according to Healthline, your testosterone levels peak in the morning after you wake up. The increase in testosterone by itself is enough to cause an erection, even in the absence of physical stimulation. However, testosterone starts to decline when men reach their 50s so they may not wake up with an erection as much as they used to.
Norepinephrine, the hormone that prevents excess erections
Have you ever wondered why you don't walk around with a boner all day? Norepinephrine or adrenaline hormone is the reason why; this neurotransmitter (chemicals that transfer messages between neurons) and hormone is involved in the control of erections. Usually, when you get an erection, there's an increase in blood flow to the blood vessels in the penis. But norepinephrine prevents this from happening, it causes the vasoconstriction of penis blood cells, meaning a narrowing of blood vessels and reduction in blood flow to the penis which prevents your boner to materialise, that's why you don't experience random boners during the day.
However, it’s different when you're sleeping as when you enter Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep - the phase of the sleep cycle during which we dream, your brain reduces the activity of certain neurotransmitters in an effort to prevent you from acting out your dreams so that you don't fall off your bed or bump into furniture! One of these neurotransmitters include norepinephrine, so when it decreases, the chances of you getting nighttime erections increase because it's not present to regulate blood flow in the penis. This leads to vasodilation, or increased blood flow to the blood vessels, ultimately causing an erection.
Nocturnal erections begin as early as in utero
Did you know that nocturnal erections start to happen as early as in utero? Dr Muhammad Mirza, a urologist says, “The physiological mechanism is the same within the placenta or outside of it — the blood flow and pressure mechanisms remain the same,”
Here’s another fun fact -the term “morning wood” is actually misleading, according to Cleveland Clinic, penises can get erect and then flaccid again several times in the course of one night. However, you’re just more likely to notice it when you wake up. Also, you should know that, according to most men, there is rarely anything sexual about morning erections.
Morning erections don't have much to do with sexual arousal
As exciting as it may sound to wake up pleasantly aroused, a Psychology Today study surveyed a group of men and found that most of them weren't aroused when they woke up with a morning erection and felt it was a hindrance like it’s 'in the way' rather than a nice surprise. In other words, there isn't much sexual about nocturnal erections. One of the participants, a 23-year-old male talks about his experience, "Morning erections are different—more of a nuisance. Unwanted morning boners are almost a buzzkill since you know they are not leading to anything."
Men also reported that a morning erection is way harder than the sexually aroused ones, “My morning erections are sometimes harder to the point of pain, and are a lot less sensitive." an 18-year-old male tells Psychology Today.
Morning erections are sometimes harder, a bit of a nuisance and just when you thought it couldn't get any worse - they can also be accompanied by the urge to urinate, what a buzzkill. A 25-year-old male affirms this during the survey, "It happens at the exact same time you have to take a leak. Your choices are - either uncomfortably force it into position in order to get it all in the bowl, or leave it as is and lean in and arch it - kind of like a Bellagio fountain of piss."
According to Vice, a morning penile erection can help in alerting men of their full bladder, as it usually subsides after emptying the bladder in the morning. So, the unconscious sensation of a full bladder stimulates the nerves that go to the spine and these respond by generating an erection as part of a spinal reflex.
Intermittent nocturnal priapism and painful nocturnal erections
Sometimes, men's struggle with morning erections is far worse than just awkwardly forcing out urine. There's a rare condition called intermittent nocturnal priapism which leads to erections that hurt enough to wake you up from a deep sleep, way worse than waking up to your alarm.
An anonymous poster writes about his experience with the same on Metafilter, a forum, he says, “Over the past few months I’ve been waking up several times during the night with an extremely turgid painful erection that won’t go away unless I stand up and walk around for a bit, or raise my legs or squeeze my thigh muscles. When this happens, I don’t feel sexually aroused and my penis doesn’t feel responsive in any way — it seems to be purely a blood-pressure thing of some sort."
He continues, "What’s going on? It feels like my penis is going to explode in a bloody mess sometimes. Has anyone else had this problem? If it matters, my normal resting blood pressure is quite low — on average 110/60.”
Nocturnal erections are a sign of good health
However annoying they might be, nocturnal erections are actually an indicator of good health. Tobias Köhler MD, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University's School of Medicine, explains, "Consistently having erections while you sleep indicates healthy blood flow to your penis, which also is necessary for getting hard when you’re turned on,” he further explains, “A healthy man should expect to get hard three to five times per night. "
He also says this can help you figure out if the cause for your erectile dysfunction is psychological or physiological, he says, "If you experience erection problems when you’re trying to get busy — but you get them overnight or when you wake up in the morning — that points more to a psychological cause of erectile dysfunction, like performance anxiety or depression. " However, do not assume this to be the sole cause of erectile dysfunction as it usually has multiple causes and not just one.
But if you haven't been experiencing erections at night either then your body could be experiencing issues with signalling blood flow to your penis. According to Dr Köhler, this is a common characteristic of underlying conditions like heart disease, blocked blood vessels, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.”
Morning erections are a complicated phenomenon and although deemed useless by most men, they indicate a healthy lifestyle so don't be too hard on yourself when you get them.