How Important is Sex to Health?

Written by Carol Petersen, RPh, CNP – Women’s International Pharmacy

These days, “sex” seems to be everywhere – in the news, in movies and on TV, in ads, on the internet – but that may not be the reality for a lot of people. What do we mean by “having sex?” Dr. Diana Hoppe defines sexual activity as caressing, hugging, foreplay, masturbation, or intercourse. And, according to Dr. Othniel Seiden, “A healthy person can expect to have an active sexuality throughout his/her life.”

Just how important is sex? Dr. Steven Lamm contends that “We are all sexual beings and sex is an essential part of who we are.” There is an important connection between sexual activity and good health. Men, in particular, define themselves by the quality and hardness of their erections. Physical strength, self-confidence, and mental acuity are the essence of being a man. The quality of their erections mirrors the quality of their health. In The Hardness Factor: How to Achieve Your Best Health and Sexual Fitness at Any Age, Dr. Lamm proposes that the key to increasing a man’s awareness of his own health is to motivate him with the potential for better sex.

The “X”

Sexual performance is not just a concern of older men; young men can experience difficulties with sex as well. Approximately 34% of men between the ages of 40 and 70 experience some degree of sexual dysfunction. Lifestyle choices such as smoking or poor diet play a significant role in sexual health. Diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, and heart disease are also contributing factors. Many common medications (such as anti-depressants, statins, and drugs to treat high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity) have side effects that hinder sexual function in men.

Dr. Dudley Seth Danoff claims that there is a veritable epidemic of penis weakness occurring today, including both real and imagined deficiencies in sexual function. One very significant problem is the increased stress in our society. Men (and women) who work long and stressful hours are often physically and mentally drained at the end of their day. Topping that off with fighting traffic to come home to financial worries and/or family conflicts creates an immediate stress response that is both psychological and physical. The accumulated stress and anxiety triggers an outpouring of epinephrine from the adrenal glands, causing blood to move away from the genitals and into the larger muscles in the arms and legs. No wonder many people struggle with getting “in the mood” for sex.

The “O”

Central to any discussion about sex is “the big O” (slang for orgasm). Orgasm refers to the release and intense pleasure felt at the climax of sexual excitement. Orgasms are good for you! Not only are they a great stress reliever, but orgasms increase blood flow and reduce blood pressure. The risk of heart attack and stroke plummets in people who have orgasms on a regular basis.

Orgasm also increases the production of some hormones, with beneficial results. For example, increases in dopamine (a brain neurotransmitter) create a feeling of well-being and pleasure. The adrenal hormone DHEA can increase as much as five times its normal level during orgasm, which boosts the immune system and leads to improved bone and tissue growth. Having orgasms at least once or twice a week also promotes formation of the antibody IgA, which contributes to a strong immune system.

However, the hormone most associated with orgasm is oxytocin, a primitive hormone produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. Both men and women produce large amounts of oxytocin during pleasurable sex, peaking at orgasm. During orgasm, oxytocin stimulates the muscle contractions associated with climax, stimulating the release of the female’s eggs and aiding in the transport of the male’s sperm.

Unlike other hormones, oxytocin even stimulates the production of more oxytocin. As it floods the body during and after intercourse, oxytocin relaxes the blood vessels making us feel calm and a bit drowsy. It reduces pain and helps heal wounds, both physical and psychological. Oxytocin functions as a bonding hormone, creating a closeness between consensual sex partners; it is also present in large amounts in women at childbirth and during breast feeding, fostering the close relationship between mother and child.

Dr. Gordon Gallup, Jr., an evolutionary psychologist at SUNY, proposes that orgasms are a biological imperative. He theorizes that the orgasm evolved as a pleasurable response for higher mammals to encourage a higher frequency of sex. In mammals, the rate of conception as the result of a sexual encounter is only 1%. Having sex associated with pleasure makes future encounters more likely.

A woman’s rate of orgasm is dependent upon the desirability of her partner. It seems that good genes and physical appearance contribute to that desirability. However, a study done in China showed that women have more orgasms if their partners are wealthy. It may be that wealth has become a modern day indicator of biological fitness. Wealth implies more intelligence and competitiveness, qualities that may be seen as more important than physical qualities in today’s society.

Women who have unprotected intercourse seem to benefit from various hormones found in semen. Studies have shown that they experience an elevated mood and decreased stress, lasting for days afterwards.

Sex is Healthy!

Dr. Hoppe claims that sex is good for us for many reasons, not the least of which is that it burns calories. Sex can be a great workout! Sex also contributes to longevity—it actually slows down the aging process. Health reasons for promoting frequent sex with orgasm include:

  • Relieves stress
  • Eases depression
  • Improves digestion and sleep
  • Helps to relieve pain by releasing oxytocin
  • Boosts the immune system with increased DHEA and IgA
  • Improves memory and learning by increasing blood flow to the hypothalamus
  • Improves the sense of smell by releasing prolactin, a pituitary hormone
  • Increases blood flow to the vagina to keep the tissue less likely to dry out and atrophy
  • Seems to improve bladder control.

Endorphins (our bodies’ own opiates) also increase during orgasm, so it just makes us feel good all over. Plain and simple, sex is a natural high. If that’s the case, then why do some people lose their interest in sex?

The Power of the Brain

While the excitement seems to build in the genitals, the brain is the largest sex organ. And it is the brain that controls libido, the drive that fuels the desire to have sex.

Women tend to have a fluctuating libido, depending on their age, their partner desirability (mentioned above) and a host of other factors (see box at right). Men have stronger sex drives than women and are almost always in the mood. This is not surprising because the male area of the brain devoted to sex drive is approximately 2½ times larger than the female counterpart.

Stages in a Woman’s Life and the Effect of Libido
Follicular Phase:Desire fuels up
Ovulation:Desire is on full “go”
Luteal Phase:Desire is diminished
Pregnancy:Desire fluctuates
Perimenopause:Desire fluctuates but tends to be in “maybe”
Menopause:Desire fluctuates between “red hot” and “no thanks”

The Magic of NO

Nitric oxide (NO) is a small but powerful molecule produced by the epithelium, which is the lining (only one cell thick) of all the blood vessels, large and small, in the body. When NO is released, the blood vessels relax. And when the blood vessels in the penis relax enough to fill with blood, the penis hardens producing an erection. Drugs like Viagra and Cialis work by making more NO available.

It is now thought that the inability to maintain an erection, or erectile dysfunction (ED), is an early warning sign for cardiovascular disease. All of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease—including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, diabetes, cigarette smoking, physical inactivity, high homocysteine levels, and aging—cause damage to the endothelial layer and consequently impair the normal production of NO. It seems like men get all the attention surrounding this, but NO production and increased circulation to the clitoris are absolutely necessary for orgasm to occur in women, too.

Diet also plays an important role in the production of NO in the body. There has to be enough nitrates and nitrites available to provide the nitrogen needed to form the nitric oxide molecule. Foods rich in nitrates include dark chocolate, (skip the milk chocolate, since milk can potentially worsen inflammation in the endothelium), black tea, walnuts (the best of all the nuts), brown rice, spinach and leafy green vegetables, pomegranate juice, orange juice, popcorn (high in l-arginine, the amino acid that increases NO), and beetroot juice.

The Mysteries of Sex

Even after so many years of existence and practice, the how and why of human sexuality still contains many mysteries. The production (or supplementation) of testosterone—long thought to be the hormone of desire—is just one of many factors. There are many biochemical intricacies, which are compounded by issues like self-esteem, a person’s general mental and physical health, and the various subtleties of attraction. We encourage you to explore the wealth of information in the references below to enhance and enjoy your sexual health.