When we think of health, we normally focus on things like diet and exercise, and occasionally branch out to meditation or mental health more generally. But do you ever consider sexual health and pleasure as part of your overall wellness?
There are so many explanations for why we don’t usually include sex, many of which relate back to the stigma that society places on it. But here are some compelling reasons for why we would benefit from viewing our sexual wellness as a part of our overall health—in the way we do with food and exercise—rather than just as a ‘nice to have.’
The Science bit
It’s still early days for the science of sex, yet there are some widely recognized benefits to having sex regularly with a partner or with yourself.
Having sex releases “feel-good” hormones
Our brain responds to sex in the same ways it responds to other pleasurable experiences, like listening to music we love, or eating something delicious. This is because sex releases a number of hormones and neurotransmitters—namely dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins—that activate the “reward pathways” in our brains.
Dopamine is produced in response to sexual stimulation; it helps us to enjoy sex in the build-up to an orgasm.
Oxytocin, often referred to as “the love hormone” is produced during childbirth and lactation, but also during hugs and orgasms. It is thought to have huge impacts on the closeness we feel to other humans. It is also possible that the intensity of an orgasm is relative to the amount of oxytocin released at the time.
Endorphins are generally produced during exercise and they make you less sensitive to pain (explaining why some people enjoy S&M), but they also work with oxytocin to promote intimacy.
This cocktail is likely responsible for many positive impacts of sex, such as:
Contributing to relaxation, trust, and good mental health
Reducing stress responses, including headaches and anxiety.
Playing a role in successful communication and conflict resolution.
Helping you sleep better.
For me, sex is absolutely a natural “high.”
The physical benefits of sex
The physical benefits of having sex are a bit less clear-cut, and vary significantly depending on things like age and biological sex. Here’s what you need to know:
Sex can be considered exercise.
A study found that if you spend 25 minutes getting frisky, you burn about 90 calories. Having regular sex that gets your blood pumping and breaks a sweat is definitely a legitimate activity to add to your normal routine.
If you are a person with a vagina, sex can help keep your heart healthy and reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that a “rewarding sexual relationship” can have significant reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the same study found that the results were very different for men. In fact, having sex once a week or more almost doubled the likelihood of older men experiencing cardiovascular risk than those who are sexually inactive.
If you’re a person with a penis (who’s over 50) ejaculation can reduce your chances of prostate cancer.
A number of studies suggest a link between ejaculation and reducing chances of prostate cancer, but a 2008 study from the British Journal of Urology International found a clear link only in men over 50.
Sex might boost your immunity.
A 2004 study of 112 college students reported that those who had frequent sex (one to two times per week) had higher levels of immunoglobulin A, meaning a possible link with sex and a good immune system in young, otherwise healthy adults. It’s worth a shot, right?
And the not so sciencey bit
While a healthy sex life looks different for everyone, for me, prioritizing sexual pleasure has led to a whole host of other positive side effects.
Understanding my body’s cycles
Paying attention to when I’m more and less in the mood for sex has really helped me to understand my body’s cycles. My libido is often intrinsically linked to my menstrual cycle (we often feel more sexual desire in the lead up to and during ovulation). By tracking the two things, and paying attention to the patterns, I’ve learned a lot about my body. Most importantly, I’ve learned to respect it and listen to it much more.
Maintaining my libido
That said, I find that having sex regularly—with a partner or masturbating—really helps maintain my libido. The less sex I have, the less bothered I am; the more I have, the more I want. I think this is a good thing, and it’s something I am keyed into. I like maintaining my libido, as I get so many benefits from having sex.
Masturbation as relief from period pain
Unsurprisingly, given the effects of endorphins, I find that having sex or masturbating can really relieve period pain, and—again—this is slowly being backed up be science. A recent study dubbed this “menstrubation,” and found that masturbating instead of using traditional pain relief was effective for reducing: cramps; diarrhoea, mental restlessness; breast and lower back pain; bloating; and the need for rest and heat to control pain.
Sex as mindfulness
Some people meditate; I find that having sex is the best way find mindfulness and connect with my body. It’s the only time that I ever really lose myself, and get out of my head. Again, there is possible science to back this up: during sex, activity decreases in the parts of the brain associated with memory recall. You are literally more mindful during sex if you allow yourself to be. And mindful sex really is the best sex.
Valuing my overall health by taking my sexual health more seriously.
A few years ago, I decided to stop taking the contraceptive pill. Partly because I wanted to see how my body functioned without it, but partly because I knew I would be more careful with barrier methods of contraception if I couldn’t rely on the pill. I was right. Taking my sexual health more seriously has helped me to value my overall health more, and has also helped me be more open in my communication: I no longer shy away from awkward conversations about condoms, and I am much more able to uphold my boundaries.
Sex boosts confidence and body image
Having sex makes me feel good physically, but learning to communicate openly and honestly, as well as being more able to make and maintain boundaries, has had a huge knock on effect on the rest of my life. I am so much more confident and I’m learning to appreciate my body in a way I’ve struggled to before. This is a positive feedback loop for me: the more confident I feel, the better the connections I make, the better the sex I have, and the better I feel in turn.
It’s time to start taking sex seriously!
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Photo: Dainis Graveris via Unsplash