Is Sex Good For Your Health?
Humans express intimacy and pleasure through sex. It is an important part of life for many people. Sex increases the release of chemicals in the brain that can benefit overall health, not just brain health. While an orgasm causes the release of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” touch, sexual talk, feeling close to a partner, and masturbation can all cause neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) to be released.
Sex has numerous health benefits, including lowering stress and anxiety, improving sleep, reducing blood pressure, relieving pain, and potentially reducing the risk of prostate cancer.
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With this said, there are risks associated with sex, such as an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections. Seeing sex as a health-promoting activity can also be used to put unnecessary or unfair pressure on others to be sexually active, especially those who have a physical or psychological condition that makes sex an unpleasant or stressful activity. Sex is one of many lifestyle choices that can be “good for your health.”
Physical Health Benefits
Several studies have suggested that sexual activity improves overall health. However, most of these studies were completed several decades ago. Newer studies explore the benefits of sex in terms of specific aspects of health.
Increased Heart Health
Most people would agree that sex is exercise, and any type of exercise will benefit cardiovascular health.
One study that enrolled 21 heterosexual couples quantified their energy expenditure during sexual activity. Mean energy expenditure during sexual activity was 101 kCal (or 4.2 kCal/min) in men and 69.1 kCal (or 3.1 kCal/min) in women. The mean intensity of exercise was 6.0 metabolic equivalents (METS) in men and 5.6 METS in women, which is moderate intensity.
Other studies put sexual activity between 3 to 4 METS, which is equivalent to climbing two flights of stairs or walking briskly. However, these studies were done in young, healthy people. In older adults, sexual activity is more likely between 3 to 5 METS.
As exercise, sex can be expected to:
- Burn calories
- Lower blood pressure
- Strengthen muscles
- Increase blood flow
- Improve agility
- Improve cardiovascular health
However, since sex is exercise, those with heart disease may be concerned that exertion associated with sex may be a threat rather than a benefit to heart health. The American Heart Association’s Scientific Statement on Sexual Activity and Cardiovascular Disease says that sexual activity is safe for people who can exercise without heart-related symptoms when engaged in activities in the range of 3 to 5 METs. As with any physical activity, those with medical conditions that may increase their risk should speak to their doctor to fully understand the risks and benefits of sex for them.
Chronic stress, not eating right, and lack of sleep can all take their toll on the immune system. Frequent sexual activity may boost immune health. In one study, researchers found that people who had sex one to two times per week had higher immunoglobulin A (IgA) in their saliva than those who did not or those who had sex three or more times per week. IgA is an immunoglobulin that protects mucous membranes, such as the lining of the lungs, throat, sinuses, and gastrointestinal tracts.
Since this is a single study and other studies have not substantiated a link, it is more beneficial to focus on other better tested ways to boost the immune system. Nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, and foods rich in B-complex vitamins neutralize free radicals and provide the immune system with the nutrients necessary to ensure optimal function.
Sex increases the release of endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins are natural painkillers, and oxytocin reduces stress and fosters a sense of connectedness. Reduced pain sensitivity, decreased stress, and a sense of well-being can all lead to better sleep. Orgasms generally help people fall asleep. However, Sleep.org found some people report the opposite effect.
Of course, better sleep has many benefits, including:
- Better weight control
- Lower blood pressure
- Stronger immune function
- More energy for exercise
- Better cognitive function
- Higher libido
More sleep can increase libido, and increased sex may lead to better sleep, a win-win situation. Researchers found that better sleep:
- Increased sexual desire
- Increased genital response to sex
- Increased the likelihood of engaging in partnered sex
Restful and good quality sleep is important to maintaining a healthy level of sexual desire, but it is not the only factor influencing libido. Hormone declines, physical changes, stress, and erectile dysfunction can all negatively impact libido.
Older adults frequently notice a decline in libido with aging. Reduced sexual desire can be caused by changes in cardiovascular health, decreased physical activity, and medication use. On the other hand, lifestyle changes, improving overall physical and psychological health, and strategic use of supplements can all boost libido.
Besides getting adequate, restful sleep, here are some other strategies to improve your sex life after 50.
- Work on relationships
- Address physical health issues
- Check medication side-effects
- Communicate your needs to your partner
Researchers discovered that increased sex can boost libido. Sex increases blood flow to the genitalia, vaginal lubrication, and vaginal and urinary tissue elasticity, making sex more comfortable and potentially sparking a renewed interest in sexual activity.
Sex increases the release of endorphins, which are natural pain relievers. Though it is fairly well substantiated that orgasms are associated with reduced menstrual cramps, pain relief doesn’t end there. Researchers found that viewing a picture of a romantic partner may be enough to activate neural pathways in the brain that reduce pain.
Sexual activity also decreases pain associated with headaches. When 800 patients with migraines and 200 patients with cluster headaches were surveyed, researchers noted that sexual activity could lead to partial or complete relief of migraine headaches and reduce pain from some cluster headaches.
Stress increases the release of catecholamines from the sympathetic nervous system, increasing glucose metabolism and stress hormone release. Increased stress hormone release increases blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rates, and constricts blood vessels, all of which can stress the heart and increase the risk of heart disease.
Chronic stress can cause cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Physical activity decreases the release of stress hormones and increases the release of endorphins (natural painkillers) and oxytocin. As a result, elevated mood persists for some time and can improve overall health. These beneficial effects are only expected when sex is satisfying.
Sex is not the only way to reduce stress and anxiety. Read about 7 tips to reduce anxiety and manage stress.
Mental Health Benefits
Researchers reviewed multiple studies to better understand the impact of sexual activity on mental health. Participating in penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) was associated with greater satisfaction with mental health in both sexes, masturbation was associated with the opposite result, and other partnered sexual activities showed no association with mental health satisfaction. The same results were found in another study that examined intimate relationship quality (women only).
PVI was associated with an improved ability to perceive, identify, and express emotions. An inability to experience emotions is associated with a higher incidence of hypoactive sexual desire, sexual dysfunction, and paraphilias.
Sexual activity increases the release of neurotransmitters that are associated with lower stress, better social connections, and better mood. In one study of pair-bonded relationships, the effects of sexual activity on mood lasted 48 hours.
Intimacy is a feeling that develops and is nurtured through meaningful relationships, but it is not limited to sexual relationships. Intimacy can develop outside of sexual relationships. Because it is an interpersonal connection with another human, intimacy is important to mood and mental health. Likewise, mood and mental health conditions can affect intimacy.
The relationship between mood, mental health, intimacy, and sexual health is highly individual. What improves mood and enhances the feeling of intimacy in one person may cause stress and anxiety in another. Intimacy can be developed over time. Sharing experiences, thoughts, and feelings can help forge a connection, which can lead to a better mood and satisfaction with life.
Health Benefits For Men
There is a lack of randomized, controlled studies evaluating the sexual health benefits for men. However, many observational studies suggest that men who engage in regular sexual activity have better overall health. However, many would argue that those with better overall health are also more likely to engage in sexual activity.
- Prostate cancer: Men with a history of STDs have a higher risk of prostate cancer. Men with a greater ejaculation frequency over their lifetime have a lower risk.
- Mortality: There are conflicting results, but one study of men aged 45-59 showed that those with more frequent orgasms have a 50 percent lower mortality rate at a 10-year follow-up. In another study, men who reported regular sexual activity were more likely to be living after five years than men who didn’t.
Health Benefits For Women
Having an orgasm increases the release of oxytocin and endorphins, increases blood flow to the genitalia, and strengthens the muscles in the pelvic floor. Sex can have the following potential benefits for women:
- Pelvic floor strength: Stronger pelvic floor muscles can reduce the risk of vaginal prolapse and urinary incontinence.
- Vaginal atrophy: Sexual activity and orgasm can reduce the risk of vaginal atrophy and increase vaginal lubrication in post-menopausal women.
- Cognitive function: A healthy sex life at an older age could improve overall cognitive function and well-being. This is important because many women worry about cognitive symptoms they might experience post-menopause, especially brain fog.
- Increase fertility: Several factors can harm your chances of getting pregnant. Many of these overlap with decreased desire for sexual activity. Increased sexual activity can increase libido.
Women, just like men, might find their desire for sex decreases with age. It may be more difficult for an older woman to get in the mood, but increasing communication between partners, reducing stress, using lubricants, and trying new options can help.
Potential Risks Of Sex
Many research studies focus on the negative health risks associated with sex. These studies are important because risks, such as unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), can be life-changing. For example, STDs, specifically chlamydia and gonorrhea, can increase the risk of erectile dysfunction.
Unwanted pregnancies and STDs cannot be entirely prevented, except through abstinence. However, the risk can be decreased by:
- Using condoms and dental dams correctly and consistently.
- Discussing the potential risk of STDs openly with sex partners.
- Scheduling regular STD testing to help identify asymptomatic infections.
For most people, there are many potential health benefits from sex. However, physical and mental health conditions can make sex anxiety-provoking, unenjoyable, and even painful for some people. It is important to seek help if you are experiencing these problems.
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While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.