Morning wood, morning glory, or—as the medical professionals call it—"nocturnal penile tumescence".
However you want to refer to a morning erection, waking up to realise you've created a tent in your doona can be annoying at best and downright embarrassing at worst.
Is waking up with an erection normal? Is it healthy? And what does it mean if your sleep stiffies suddenly stop?
If you've spent one too many mornings shuffling to the bathroom with your t-shirt pulled down over your goods, this article is for you.
How common are morning erections?
If you're worried that you're the only bloke out there waking up with his flagpole pre-raised, don't stress. “The majority of men experience morning erections, starting fairly early on in puberty,” says Dr. Sergio Diez Alvarez, a doctor of internal medicine. “Through the adult male years, most men will experience them.”
That said, the frequency with which you get morning erections will probably fluctuate over time as you finish puberty, hit adulthood, and begin growing older.
Your body won't have a set schedule for producing morning erections, but what is important to know is that most guys will get them throughout their lives.
Exactly what causes them?
When we sleep, we fall in to phases of REM—that's Rapid Eye Movement, not the band with Michael Stipe.
REM is a deep sleep, and it's often the stage of sleep in which we'll find ourselves dreaming. It's also the time when our parasympathetic nervous system takes over, bringing us from 'fight or flight mode' into 'rest and digest mode', when our body begins recovering from a day's work.
Throughout the night, the parasympathetic nervous system can spontaneously create a number of erections. While the jury is still out on exactly how the body does this, theories range from a release of nitrous oxide in the blood vessels to the switching off of noradrenergic cells.
It does this all unconsciously: meaning that you don't have to be thinking or dreaming about anything for this process to occur. Complex, right?
But let's get real: does waking up with an erection mean you've been having sexual dreams? Not always. Although having a sexual dream can certainly cause an erection, the kind of erection you wake up with isn't necessarily the same kind you'll get from being turned on.
Dr. Diez Alvarez told Pilot that a morning erection is different to the one you'll get during arousal or sex because of the chemical process behind creating it. “The part of the brain that causes the release of dopamine is something that's able to give the same physiological effect that you normally get in the arousal phase,” he said. “Normal arousal is dopamine based, whereas this is testosterone based.”
So what it basically boils down to is that as you drift in and out of heavier stages of sleep, your body produces various chemical and nervous responses that cause spontaneous erections. And if you wake up in the middle of an REM cycle—say, when your alarm goes off—you'll often find that the erection caused during that sleep cycle still remains.
Why does this happen?
There are a couple of different theories. One major one used to be that a morning erection was the byproduct of a full bladder, and that keeping the penis erect during sleep was the body's way of stopping you from wetting the bed.
That's sort of been debunked, though, as the body has a lot of ways to stop you from doing that anyway.
There's also the theory that the body producing erections during sleep is a way of, well, exercising your dick. Erections increase blood flow to the penis, and this blood flow is said to help prevent conditions that can cause erectile dysfunction.
While different people have put forward different theories on why the body does this, the one thing they all have agreed on is that it's natural and totally normal.
Is it embarrassing?
“From a medical point of view, there is nothing to be embarrassed about,” Dr. Diez Alvarez told us.
“It's a normal brain function, and no different to dreams or any other sleep-related function.” In fact, women can also experience a similar phenomenon, fittingly called nocturnal clitoral tumescence—although it hasn't been studied quite as extensively as its male counterpart.
“But if you want to take a lighter view of the world,” says Dr. Diez Alvarez, “Use it to your advantage! It means you have a normal male sexual capacity. It should be reassuring.”
What if I don't get morning erections?
A lot of things can impact your body's ability to produce an erection, including sleep quality, stress, mental health, and alcohol consumption. So if you stop getting morning erections for a period of time when you're stressed, unhappy, partying a lot, or even just staying up late to work the night shift, don't worry too much.
But Dr. Diaz Alvarez says that if you're experiencing any other forms of sexual dysfunction at the same time – like low libido, for example – and you've stopped getting morning erections when you used to get them often, you should mention it to your doctor.
Our bodies do heaps of things that can seem weird, unusual, and embarrassing.
While everybody is different, it's reassuring to know that something we don't talk about that often is actually something that most guys experience.