- Researchers continue to study the ways that sex can affect your brain, because having sex is great for both your body and your mind.
- Aside from simply feeling good, having sex is great for your overall health and can have some seriously powerful benefits on your body and brain.
- From lowering stress levels to improving your memory, these are the 10 ways sex affects the brain.
Having sex isn’t just a surefire way to feel closer with your partner and enjoy some time connecting with your own body, but sex also has some pretty powerful benefits for your mental health, as researchers have studied over time.
It’s true that sex is good for the body and brain, and can have both immediate effects as well as long-term benefits, especially as you get older.
From lowering stress levels to improving your memory, these are the 10 ways sex affects your brain.
Sex triggers the release of a cocktail of chemicals in the brain.
There’s a reason why sex feels so good, and it’s all because of the brain. During sexual activity, a flood of feel-good hormones are released throughout our bodies, lighting up the reward centres in our brains. In 2017, researchers at Harvard University discussed the science behind some of those chemical reactions, sharing just how powerful they can be.
“Dopamine, produced by the hypothalamus, is a particularly well-publicised player in the brain’s reward pathway – it’s released when we do things that feel good to us. In this case, these things include spending time with loved ones and having sex,” shares Katherine J. Wu, Ph.D., a graduate student at Harvard, adding, “High levels of dopamine and a related hormone, norepinephrine, are released during attraction. These chemicals make us giddy, energetic, and euphoric.”
Another feel-good hormone,oxytocin, is also released during sex, with Wu adding, “Oxytocin is often nicknamed the ‘cuddle hormone’ for this reason. Like dopamine, oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released in large quantities during sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth. This may seem like a very strange assortment of activities – not all of which are necessarily enjoyable – but the common factor here is that all of these events are precursors to bonding.”
These same chemicals may make you feel sleepy, too.
Aside from the fact that sex can be a pretty rigorous activity, that chemical release can actually make your brain tired, too, leading to that telltale feeling of wanting to doze off into your partner’s arms.
“During sex, the brain releases oxytocin which heightens arousal and excitement,” as sex therapist Dr. Debra Lainopreviously told INSIDER. “But when it wears off, it can leave people feeling really tired.””Oxytocin is often accompanied by melatonin, the primary hormone that regulates our body clocks,” added sex therapist Dr. Carlen Costa, noting that melatonin has a “calming” effect on our brains.
Penetrative sex may also lower your stress and anxiety levels.
For many of us, it’s easy to feel stressed out more than ever these days, between hectic work days, our home lives, social commitments, and seemingly never-ending to-do lists. But one solid remedy is sex, as researchers have proven.
Sexual activity creates a response in several areas of the brain, which is why it has so many impacts on our physical and emotional health, including acting as a natural stress reliever.
A 2006 study from the Journal of Biological Psychology found that penile-vaginal intercourse helped lower blood pressure levels in men and women, lowering stress levels better than any other sexual activity.
As Costa previously told INSIDER, the release of oxytocin during intercourse also helps regulate levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, leading to a calming effect. And the increased cerebral blood flow helps our brain better process our response to anxiety.
Exposure to semen might lower levels of depression in women.
Though sex helps boost mental health in all genders, it’s women who benefit most from exposure to her partner’s semen. According to a 2002 study from the University at Albany, semen eases depression in women who are not using barrier methods of protection during penetrative sex.
Nearly 300 women were screened based on their mental health and sexual behaviour, and UAlbany psychology professor Gordon Gallup found that “females who engaged in sexual intercourse but never used condoms exhibited significantly lower scores” in a depression screening than “those who usually or always used condoms.”
Of course, having safe sex and using protective measures against sexually transmitted infections is of the utmost importance.
Orgasm also lights up several parts of the female brain.
Though male sexual response has been extensively studied, fewer studies have been done on the effects of sexual response on the female brain.
But in 2017, researchers at Rutgers University Newark used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine brain activity immediately before, during, and immediately after female orgasm.
The study, published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that brain activity was “heightened” in the moments during orgasm, with activity overall being lower during the arousal period beforehand and the recovery period afterward. The activity level increased during orgasm in several parts of the brain, indicating that it’s not just our bodies that experience heightened sensations during orgasm, but our brains as well.
Male sexual stimulation may also increase brain activity, too.
In 2005, researchers at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands studied the human brain during penile sexual stimulation, finding that sexual desire before physical stimulation activated the right amygdala, triggering penile erection, sexual feelings, and sensations of pleasure.
A 2003 study from the same university – which focused on the link between male ejaculation and brain activity – found that the increase in blood flow to the cerebellum upon ejaculation also plays an important role in “emotional processing.”
Sex may improve your memory as you age.
As we get older, brain function naturally declines, with our memories increasingly susceptible to decline the older we get.
But a 2018 study by Australian researchers published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour found that sex could improve your memory when you’re older, with results showing a direct correlation between more frequent sexual activity and memory performance.
The link was strongest among older participants in the study of more than 6,000 adults over the age of 50, suggesting that sexual activity has a positive effect on memory, which has been studied several times in recent with consistent results in older adults.
Regular sex can might improve overall cognitive function in older adults.
It’s not just your memory that benefits from regular romps between the sheets – frequent sex is also good for verbal fluency, language, visual fluency, and visuospatial ability, or the ability to judge the space between objects.
A 2016 study by Coventry and Oxford universities found that older adults who had sex weekly performed better on cognitive tests on memory and also on attention, word recall, and visual and verbal recognition. An additional 2016 study by researchers at McGill University in Canada found that sex helps with nervous tissue growth in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls emotions, memory, and the nervous system.
Women who had sex more frequently found it easier to recall abstract words, proving that sex might be better than studying the dictionary when it comes to keeping your brain sharp.
However, it might also cause a rare form of amnesia.
Even though sex has numerous benefits on the brain, there are some potential drawbacks as well. Rare cases of transient global amnesia (TGA), a temporary loss of memory function that is typically seen after a neurological condition, like epilepsy or a stroke.
A 2005 study showed a 56-year-old woman with transient global amnesia, reported after a sexual encounter. A 1998 study found the same link between two men, both in their seventies, reporting confusion and memory loss within 30 minutes of sex, and a 1997 study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry examined a 64-year-old male who exhibited symptoms of amnesia after five different sexual encounters with his wife. Cardiovascular and neurological scans came back normal, showing the link between TGA and sex.
Sex can also cause a phenomenon known as the “post-sex blues.”
Though most of us reap intense emotional and physical feelings of relaxation and bliss after a romp in the hay, some people actually experience the opposite, feeling sad, anxious, or angry after sex.
The International Society for Sexual Medicine describes postcoital dysphoria(or the “post-sex blues”) as “feelings of deep sadness or agitation after consensual sex, even if the encounter was loving, satisfying, or enjoyable,” leading to a deep emotional response after orgasm.
A 2018 study published in The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that postcoital dysphoria(PCD) has been reported among females after consensual sex, but the data among males appears more “nuanced” than previously thought.
If you’ve ever experienced a strong feeling of sadness or anger immediately after sex, you may have felt the effects of PCD firsthand and should consider talking to a therapist to understand why.
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