Come on, get happy (and healthy!)
By Delilah Wood
It’s no secret that consensual sex is good for you – whether it’s solo or partnered, vanilla or kinky. But you might not know that orgasms, in particular, have health benefits, no matter your gender.
This is great news for, well, most of us right now, when we’re short on socializing options and long on time inside our homes. But it’s good for people who are working outside the home right now, too – if you can manage it, orgasms can reduce stress, promote sound sleep, and even potentially decrease risk factors for cancer and heart disease. In a time when we’re all dealing with increased stress, fear for our health, and a need for human connection, orgasms may be just what the doctor orders.
Orgasm isn’t the be-all end-all of sex, and shouldn’t be, especially because some people can’t experience it, and many others have difficulty doing so. And with good reason: it’s a complex process, involving an incredible synergy between bodily responses, brain activity, hormones, and thoughts – which can aid the process with fantasies or thwart it with anxieties.
But the whole sexual response cycle has benefits beyond orgasm alone. Read on for real talk about what happens in your body and brain during sex – and how you might be getting even more out of it than pleasure.
What happens to your body
If you’ve had good sex, you know the feelings: the warm flush, pounding heart, the feeling of your body opening and desire seeming to rush around inside you. When you get close to orgasm, the softness and relaxation of arousal can start to become tension, until things finally explode in fireworks. All of this can feel like magic, but in reality there are a whole lot of physiological things going on to make this happen.
When you feel desire and then arousal, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your breathing speeds up. Your body is preparing for sex in a number of ways: the increased blood flow drives some of your tissues to swell, mainly your genitals but also breasts (up to 25%!), nipples, and even lips. When you orgasm, your genitals and anus all clench at once, in ripples of involuntary muscle contraction. (The super-sexy terms for what’s required for orgasm: vasocongestion (the swelling) and myotonia (the muscle contraction).)
A lot of things about this whole process make it good for your health. Besides the simple erotic pleasure of it, most people feel very relaxed afterward. The rapid contraction and relaxation of those muscles – along with a release of hormones – accounts for some people’s strong desire to nap after sex. For people with periods, orgasm can be a great pain reliever for cramps.
All that elevated heart rate and breathing also makes sex good cardiovascular exercise. It’s not as effective as going for a run, but it definitely counts! The muscle contraction is good for the health of your muscular system, too. The smooth muscles in the genitals and anus benefit from being exercised – research shows that unlike most electronics, the more you use your junk, the longer it lasts. But depending on how vigorous your sex is, you can also maintain strength and tone in your other muscles from all of that tensing and releasing.
You might also have noticed that when you have sex, it can open up your nasal passages and get things flowing. It’s a little gross, but all the body’s mucus membranes tend to operate together! The upshot of this (as it were) is that having sex can help clear your sinuses or unclog your stuffy nose.
There’s some even more powerful research, though, suggesting major health benefits, like a reduction in all-cause mortality for men who have more frequent orgasms. Other studies of penis-havers showed some evidence that frequent ejaculation reduces the risk of prostate cancer.
There’s sadly a lot less research on people with vaginas, which, typical. But there’s been quite a bit lately on how our brains work during sex and orgasm, regardless of gender.
This is your brain on drugs
During the entire sexual experience, your brain releases a veritable soup of hormones that perform all kinds of different functions. One of these is dopamine, which some call the “reward chemical,” because it’s released in response to things that make us feel good, and help us recognize them so we can seek them out again. Interestingly, your brain basically reacts the same way to sex as it does to anything else that gives us pleasure: good food, your favorite music, gambling, alcohol and drugs – so while the dopamine effect is good to know, it’s not necessarily health-promoting.
Other hormones and brain activity, however, have some clear benefits. Endorphins, for example, have been shown to have plenty, including helping with depression. If your sex is kinky, you may experience endorphin release through your body’s response to direct pain. But even if it isn’t, your brain is at work increasing your pain tolerance, with the release of endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin. And some studies have shown that vaginal stimulation increases pain tolerance, without orgasm or even pleasure.
Speaking of oxytocin, this hormone that’s been called the “cuddle chemical” is part of what makes you feel blissed-out after sex. Also released during breastfeeding, oxytocin is responsible for emotional bonding. But even if you’re having solo sex, your brain will release the chemical, which can make you feel a happy sense of well-being all by yourself.
If you are experiencing increased bonding with a sex partner, that, of course, has various follow-on effects for increased health as well: there’s a very strong connection between community and longevity. That is: the more you have people around you who make you feel good and safe, the better your overall health and life expectancy will be.
But some studies suggest that hormones that are released during orgasm, like oxytocin and DHEA, could even protect against cancers and heart disease. And another chemical the brain helpfully adds after the big O: serotonin, which promotes elevated mood, relaxation, and healthy sleep.
Generally speaking, sexual arousal and especially orgasm increase blood flow to the brain, and light up many different areas. In fact, the array of brain activity that researchers have recorded using MRI and PET scans is dizzying. While there isn’t clear science on this yet, some researchers suggest that all of this increased brain activity and blood flow is part of the reason orgasms exist: it’s an evolutionary adaptation that not only encourages us to reproduce but keeps our brains healthy, too.
In short: during this time when we’re all thinking a lot about our health, do something you don’t need to leave the house for and have yourself some orgasms! Whether alone or with a partner, it does a body (and a brain) good.
If you enjoyed this article, you may want to check out The Woman’s Guide to Having an Orgasm for the First Time or How to Have a Sex Life After You Have Kids.
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