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The Health Benefits of Sex

Sex is an important factor in your life

Highlights

  1. Sexual health isn’t just having safe sex. It’s also recognizing that sex is a part of life.
  2. The physical and mental benefits of sex include pain relief and improved intimacy.
  3. Oxytocin, called the “love” hormone, can stimulate bonding between sexual partners and improve sleep. It’s released during an orgasm.

Sex and sexuality are a part of life. Aside from reproduction, sex can be about intimacy and pleasure. Sexual activity, penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI), or masturbation, can offer many surprising benefits to all facets of your life:

  • physical
  • intellectual
  • emotional
  • psychological
  • social

Sexual health is more than avoiding diseases and unplanned pregnancies. It’s also about recognizing that sex can be an important part of your life, according to the American Sexual Health Association.

How can sex benefit your body?

This study suggests that sex can be good cardiovascular exercise in younger men and women. Though sex isn’t enough exercise on its own, it can be considered light exercise.

Some of the benefits you can get from sex include:

  • lowering blood pressure
  • burning calories
  • increasing heart health
  • strengthening muscles
  • reducing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and hypertension
  • increasing libido

People with active sex lives tend to exercise more frequently and have better dietary habits than those who are less sexually active. Physical fitness may also improve sexual performance overall.

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Stronger immune system

In a study of immunity in people in romantic relationships, people who had frequent sex (one to two times a week) had more immunoglobulin A (IgA) in their saliva. People who had infrequent sex (less than once a week) had significantly less IgA.

IgA is the antibody that plays a role in preventing illnesses and is the first line of defense against human papillomavirus, or HPV.

But those who had sex more than three times a week had the same amount of IgA as those who had infrequent sex. The study suggests that anxiety and stress can possibly cancel out the positive effects of sex.

Better sleep

Your body releases oxytocin, also called the “love” or “intimacy” hormone, and endorphins during an orgasm. The combination of these hormones can act as sedation.

Better sleep can contribute to:

  • a stronger immune system
  • a longer lifespan
  • feeling more well-rested
  • having more energy during the day

Headache relief

Another study shows that sexual activity can provide full or partial relief from migraines and cluster headaches.

Of people who were sexually active during their attacks:

  • 60 percent reported an improvement during a migraine
  • 70 percent reported moderate to complete relief during a migraine
  • 37 percent reported improvement of symptoms in cluster headaches
  • 91 percent reported moderate to complete relief in cluster headaches

How sex benefits all genders

In men

A recent review found that men who had more frequent penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) had less risk of developing prostate cancer.

One study found that men who averaged having 4.6 to 7 ejaculations a week were 36 percent less likely to receive a prostate cancer diagnosis before the age of 70. This is in comparison to men who reported ejaculating 2.3 or fewer times a week on average.

For men, sex may even affect your mortality. One study that had a 10 year follow-up reported that men who had frequent orgasms (defined as two or more a week) had a 50 percent lower mortality risk than those who had sex less often.

Although results are conflicting, the quality and health of your sperm may increase with increased sexual activity, as some research suggests.

In women

Having an orgasm increases blood flow and releases natural pain-relieving chemicals.

Sexual activity in women can:

  • improve bladder control
  • reduce incontinence
  • relieve menstrual and premenstrual cramps
  • improve fertility
  • build stronger pelvic muscles
  • help produce more vaginal lubrication
  • potentially protect you against endometriosis, or the growing of tissue outside your uterus

The act of sex can help strengthen your pelvic floor. A strengthened pelvic floor can also offer benefits like less pain during sex and reduced chance of a vaginal prolapse. One study shows that PVI can result in reflexive vaginal contractions caused by penile thrusting.

Women who continue to be sexually active after menopause are less likely to have significant vaginal atrophy, or the thinning of vaginal walls. Vaginal atrophy can cause pain during sex and urinary symptoms.

How can sex benefit your mental health?

Sexual activity, with a partner or through masturbation, can provide important psychological and emotional benefits. Like exercise, sex can help reduce stress and anxiety and increase happiness.

Studies suggest that sexual activity (defined as PVI) may correlate with:

  • increased satisfaction with your mental health
  • increased levels of trust, intimacy, and love in your relationships
  • improved ability to perceive, identify, and express emotions
  • lessened use of your immature psychological defense mechanism, or the mental processes to reduce distress from emotional conflict

At an older age, sexual activity may affect your well-being and ability to think. Research found that sexually active adults between 50 to 90 years old had better memory. They were also less likely to feel depressed and lonely.

Confidence booster

Frequent sexual activity, whether with a partner or alone, can make you look younger. This is partially due to the release of estrogen during sex.

One study found a correlation between frequent sexual activity and looking significantly younger (between seven to 12 years younger). The majority of these individuals were also comfortable expressing their sexuality and sexual identity.

Social benefits

Sex can help you connect to your partner, thanks to oxytocin. Oxytocin can play a role in developing relationships. You may find that consistent, mutual sexual pleasure helps with bonding within a relationship.

Coupled partners often have increased relationship satisfaction when they fulfill one another's sexual desires. You may find positive growth in your relationship when you’re able to express yourself and your sexual desires.

What are the benefits of masturbation?

Masturbation can offer many of the same benefits as sex, but also has its own advantages, including:

  • enhanced sex between partners
  • understanding your own body
  • increased ability for orgasms
  • boosted self-esteem and body image
  • increased sexual satisfaction
  • treatment for sexual dysfunction

Masturbation is considered entirely safe and with fewer health risks attached. When practiced alone, there is no risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). According to Planned Parenthood, it increases mental well-being not mental illness or instability like some myths suggest.

Celibacy and abstinence

Sex isn’t the only indicator of health or happiness. You can still lead an active and happy life without sex. The benefits of sex come from the feeling of pleasure, which studies show can also come from listening to music, interacting with pets, and having strong religious faith. According to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, a long-term study of nuns reported that many of them lived well into their 90s and past 100 years old.

Takeaway

Sex is an important part of life and overall well-being. In relationships, orgasms play a significant part in bonding. Physical and emotional benefits like reduced risk of heart disease, improved self-esteem, and more can come from having sex.

You can still have similar benefits without sex. Engaging in other pleasurable activities like exercising, interacting with a pet, and having a strong network of friends could potentially offer the same benefits. Sex is just one way of improving your quality of life.

But if sex is part of your life, due to a relationship or desire, it’s important to be able to communicate and experience sexual satisfaction. You may find relief and an increase in happiness when you take the time to have sex.

You asked, we answered

  • Is there such a thing as too much sex (including masturbation)?
  • Sexual desire and activity change through the life span. Masturbation begins in puberty, is common in both sexes, can be frequent, and continues throughout the life span. Sexual activity is at its highest at the beginning of a relationship. With aging sexual desire or activity may slow. Sex is good for your psychological health and immune function. Having frequent orgasms is healthy, having many sexual partners and unprotected sex is not.

    But sexual addiction and chronic masturbation can become problem. If your abundant sexual activity is causing you distress do seek help. Speak with your doctor; there is treatment.

    - Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

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