It seems as though sex is everywhere. It’s used to sell just about anything, musicians sing about it, and artists create about it. Beyond the elements of sex you might enjoy, sex is good for you, too. Having sex can provide crucial mental health, physical health, and relationship benefits for you. Two of these benefits are stress reduction and improvement in mood. Who couldn’t use more of that?
Is Sex Good For You?
Sex has many physical and psychological health benefits that make sex good for you. Sure, biology tells us to have sex to reproduce. We need to have sex to ensure our species doesn’t die out since reproduction is an evolutionary strategy of our species. But the brain and body work together to feel pleasure before, during, and after sex to ensure we continue to procreate. This pleasure hormone is called dopamine.1
For those of you asking, “How often do I need to have sex to reap the benefits?” “What if I don’t have a sexual partner?” and “Do I have to reach orgasm to experience the health benefits?” keep reading. We will delve into that right now.
What Constitutes Sex?
Sex isn’t just intercourse – it can be any consenting activity involving arousal. More specifically, it isn’t always heteronormative sex focusing on penis-in-vagina intercourse. Do healthy sex lives include sexual activities like masturbation, foreplay, kissing, and sharing fantasies? Yes! Do the health benefits of sex apply to all types of sexual activities? Yes, to some extent. Professor, reproductive psychiatrist, and certified sexual health therapist Dr. Cirino at the Oregon Health and Science University explains: “Having sex alone through masturbation won’t stimulate the release of as much oxytocin or other mood-boosting hormones… but [people having] sex without partners can still enjoy physiological benefits like pain reduction, better sleep, and lower blood pressure.”2 That’s good news for those flying solo or not interested in having sex with a partner.
To have a healthy sex life, solo or with a partner, understanding and communicating your desires is vital.
How Sex Benefits All Genders
You might identify as male, female, transmale, transfemale, nonbinary, genderfluid, intersex, nonconforming, agender, or with another term of your choice. While this identification doesn’t describe who you might desire sexual activity with or whether you desire sexual activity at all, sex can be enjoyed by all humans. However, your arousal might vary depending on the sexual organs you utilize in sex, including genitalia, skin, erogenous zones, and the brain (the most valuable sexual organ of all!)
Sex Benefits for Men
The benefits of sex for individuals who are assigned male at birth (AMAB) and/or utilize male genitalia for sex include both physical and mental health benefits. Topping the list of benefits is that frequent ejaculation appears to be linked to a lower risk for prostate cancer.3 Also, sex can be good for your heart! According to a New England Research Institute study, men who make love at least twice a week are 45% less likely to have heart disease than men who have sex only once a month or less.3
Sex Benefits for Women
Individuals who are assigned female at birth (AFAB) or utilize female genitalia for sex also experience a wide range of benefits from having sex, including the heart-healthy benefits of sex. A 2016 study found that women who said they had frequent, extremely satisfying sex had a lower risk of hypertension, a common precursor to heart disease.” Studies have found that sexual activity can reduce menstrual cramps, chronic back and leg pain, and migraines.3, 18
Scientists credit hormones released during sex, like endorphins, which block pain and stress, and oxytocin, the hormone that helps mothers and babies bond and which has pain-relieving properties. Fun fact: For women and AFAB individuals, sex can help work your pelvic muscles, which can help with urinary incontinence and bladder control.
10 Mental Health Benefits of Sex
Beyond the benefits for our physical health, sex offers many benefits for our mental health. These benefits include reducing stress and anxiety, improving mood, and increasing self-confidence. A study researching sex as an antidote to depression and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that the pandemic dramatically impacted all types of health: psychological, relational, and sexual. In this scenario, sexual activity was protective against the quarantine-related plague of anxiety and mood disorders in both men and women.4, 18 If sex can offer these benefits during a worldwide pandemic, imagine how it can benefit our mood, stress, anxiety, and self-confidence during normal times.
The following list describes ten physical and mental health benefits of sex:
1. Sex Reduces Stress & Anxiety
Sex may reduce stress and anxiety. An Israeli study showed “though sexual intercourse in and of itself may help people relieve stress, and it is likely that having sex with someone with whom one shares feelings of closeness and intimacy would be especially effective.”5 Of course, the converse might also be true; that sex within the context of an abusive relationship or non-consensual interaction would likely increase stress.
If we look specifically at individuals with anxiety disorders, sex may or may not have a positive impact. Anxiety is a condition where a person feels fear or worry. It can come about in thoughts, feelings, and actions, impacting your sex life. Anxious feelings can keep you from talking with your partner about your desires or prevent you from being confident about your body during sex.
2. Sex Improves Mood
Sexual desire, arousal, and orgasm are often linked to brain chemicals, including those that improve our moods.6 The neurotransmitter dopamine is produced in response to sexual stimulation. Thanks to dopamine, we feel enjoyment. In addition, dopamine is not only connected with sex but also with delicious food, learning something new, music, gambling, and taking drugs.6 Researchers (and married couple) from Harvard, Richard Schwartz, and Jacqueline Olds, share this detail about sexual activity: [it] can increase oxytocin levels and activate the brain’s reward circuit, making couples desire each other more.7 Released during sex and heightened by skin-to-skin contact, oxytocin deepens feelings of attachment and makes couples feel closer to one another after having sex. The message here seems to be to have more sex!
3. Sex Boosts Self-Confidence
The surge of endorphins often associated with sex can also improve your self-esteem and help you feel more confident in your everyday life. Case in point: in a large 2019 study, older adults who were sexually active reported having a greater enjoyment of life and better overall well-being. This study, conducted in England and focusing on older adults, discovered that “sexual activity and feeling emotionally close to one’s partner during sexual activity were associated with greater enjoyment of life in both men and women.”8 Go for it! Sex can help with your low self-esteem and/or poor body image.
4. Improves Sexual Intimacy
How important is sex to a relationship? For many people, sexual satisfaction seems to be very important when measuring relationship satisfaction. Several researchers found that people who report having an intimate and positive sex life also feel their lives have more meaning. Not only do people with satisfying sex lives feel better about their relationships, but they also report higher ratings of happiness and mental health.9 It’s a win-win! Having make up sex after an argument can further improve sexual intimacy.
5. Improves Sleep Quality
Sleep trouble can plague all of us at some point. However, research findings indicate many people associate sexual activity that includes orgasm with improved sleep outcomes. Promoting safe sexual activity before bed may offer a novel behavioral strategy for promoting sleep!10 This is likely correlated with either solo sex or sex with a partner.
Despite the pervasiveness of insomnia or occasional sleep trouble, advice on insomnia rarely mentions a potential non pharmacological sleep aid that’s free and easily accessible to most people: sex, whether with a partner or solo. Here’s why it might help: “After orgasm, levels of oxytocin and prolactin rise while levels of cortisol drop. Common sense suggests that raising the level of feel-good hormones and reducing stress hormone levels will likely help us sleep better.”11 If this sounds good, try sex as a sleeping aid to impact your mental health positively. Getting regular sleep is essential to support your mental and physical health. A lack of sleep can increase your risk of developing a mental health disorder, like depression.
6. Decreases Depression
While we don’t know everything about depression, we recognize a connection between brain chemistry and mood disorders. Researchers in Canada are looking at the relationship between oxytocin-releasing activities and a decrease in depression. Guess what? Sex produces oxytocin in humans and we can count oxytocin production as one of the many benefits of orgasming! 12, 18 Not enough is known yet about how much sex is needed or whether the release of oxytocin in combination with other depression treatments can assist in treating depression, but it is believed that oxytocin is associated with social interactions, love, and other positive behaviors.
7. Improved Cognitive Functioning
While the connection between sex and cognitive functioning is under-researched, a study published in 2016 showed a correlation between maintaining a healthy sex life in older age could be instrumental in improving cognitive function and well-being.13 Cognitive functioning refers primarily to memory and recall, but it also includes the psychological factors of quality of life, a lack of loneliness, and an increased mood. It also works in a cycle; folks with improved cognition have more sex and experience better comprehension.
8. Increased Relationship Satisfaction
Does good sex lead to a good relationship, or is it the other way around? “This may seem like a chicken and egg problem to many people. A study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that relationship and sexual satisfaction have a bidirectional relationship, where each one affects the other”.15 Of course, it makes sense; a positive sexual interaction with someone you care about will help you feel closer and more invested in the relationship.
Many people view trust as one of the critical factors in a healthy relationship. Trust is often required for us to be vulnerable, build connections, and maintain a sense of safety. Healthy relationships are built on integrity or doing what you say you will do. When this is not honored, a secure relationship’s security, confidence, and support can be destroyed, at least temporarily.
9. Improved Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation is a term used to describe an inappropriate and or poorly regulated reaction that falls outside the norms of acceptable emotional responses. This includes those who struggle to keep their emotional reactions controlled. Emotional dysregulation can also have a fluctuation in mood and mood swings. Sexual pleasure improves our ability to regulate our emotions, allowing us to increase interpersonal connections and better sexual interactions.
A multi-disciplinary study and literature review explains: “Sexual problems are [often] characterized by difficulties in the ability to respond sexually or to obtain sexual pleasure. …Difficulties in emotion identification or impairment in emotion regulation may thus play a pivotal role in developing and maintaining sexual problems.”16
10. Reduces the Stigma of Talking About Sex
When the conversations around having sex and choosing not to have sex increase and are more inclusive, we can reduce the stigma around talking about sex. As the language grows to include identities like asexual and demiromantic, we can acknowledge the benefit to mental health. Activities that carry a social stigma often make people feel isolated, alone, or misunderstood. Have sex, talk about having sex, talk about not having sex. Talk about the sex you like or don’t like. Let’s make it an open conversation.
Physical Health Benefits of Sex
We know that physical and mental health can be related. For example, chronic pain can lead to depressive symptoms. Sexuality is essential to the quality of life for mental and physical health benefits. Despite our beliefs about a strong connection between social relationships and health, sex has been largely ignored and under-researched. Sex can assist both mental and physical health. The advantages of sex don’t stop at mental health benefits.
Sex provides a wide range of physical benefits, too, including:
- Improved heart health. Here is some promising research: Women’s cardiovascular health can benefit from a rewarding sexual relationship. In addition, regular sexual activity can delay the possible onset of cardiovascular disease for men and women both.17 You should consult your physician about sexual activity if you have cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, or a family history.
- Pain relief. For individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB), studies have found that sexual activity can reduce menstrual cramps. 3 Other individuals may experience relief from other pain conditions like chronic back and leg pain and migraines.3 Fun fact: For women and those assigned female at birth (AFAB), sex can help work your pelvic muscles, which can help with urinary incontinence and bladder control.
- Improved skin appearance. If your sex life contributes to your happiness, it will show in your skin, smile, and presentation to the world. It’s not a myth, either! Research has shown that oxytocin (remember, the happy sex hormone?), produced during sex, actually causes visible improvement to your skin. If you’re happy and know it, your skin will surely show it!
- Boosted immune system. As the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn about a unique protection element. Yes, sex. A study of 18-year-olds from more than 30 different countries discovered this: “As one’s sexual activity increased, the immunity status becomes more competent to deal with pathogens, and this explains lower incidence of disease among those who have sex more than three times a month in comparison with those who have sex less than three times a month.”14 Of course, it goes without saying to practice safer sex, whether knowing your partner’s COVID status or protecting yourself against sexually transmitted infections.
Benefits of Masturbation
Masturbation is a normal, healthy part of your sexual development. It can involve your hands, fingers, sex toys, or other objects stimulating your genitals for sexual pleasure. Masturbation has many documented health benefits. It may reduce stress, improve sleep, and ease pain, among other benefits. Masturbation is a widespread and healthy activity that explores your body, generates pleasure, and releases some tension. The benefits of masturbation include the same physical and mental health boosts as sex with a partner. It can release oxytocin and help manage cortisol. In addition, it is almost always safer sex since you don’t have to worry about sexually transmitted infections.
Benefits of masturbation include:
- An improved immune system by activating our body’s natural responses.20 These benefits are often triggered by sexual arousal and/or orgasm, which can occur during solo sex.
- Increased sexual satisfaction, which comes from knowing our sexual desires and preferences, improves our relationship with our bodies. Female masturbation has many proven benefits. People assigned female at birth (AFAB) who masturbate are more likely to have an orgasm during sexual relationships with their partners. Female masturbation can also help provide relief for menstrual cramps. In older people, masturbation may lead to less vaginal dryness and decreased pain during sexual intercourse.
- Improved self-esteem is also a pleasant bonus from increased sexual satisfaction and the knowledge and execution of our sexuality.
- Solo sex can also help you relax, reduce stress, and improve sleep. It’s those pleasure hormones again!
- Increased focus
- Boost your mood, including a reduction in anxiety and depressive symptoms
- Alleviate aches and pain
Celibacy & Abstinence
Choosing to live a life without sexual activity is a valid preference, whether it be in a religious context or for personal growth. Although sexual activity is commonly believed to be a key component of emotional well-being, little is known about the absence of sexual activity.21 While the research is minimal, studies have shown a similar level of happiness between sexually active and celibate individuals. If you identify as asexual, abstinent, platonic, or chaste, there may be many benefits to being celibate.
When Can Therapy Help?
Physical, psychological, and emotional factors can all cause sexual challenges. A therapist aims to help a person or couple address these issues and obtain a more fulfilling sex life, jointly or solo. Sex therapy is a talk therapy designed to help individuals and couples achieve sexual satisfaction. Finding the right therapist can help you if you are struggling with sexual disorders, sexual anxiety, orgasm anxiety, or questioning your sexuality.
You might find online marriage counseling or a specialized therapist through an online therapy platform to help improve your sexual relationships, sexual health, or sexuality. It can help improve communication around sex between partners or help you identify your sexual needs and preferences.
Therapy is also recommended if you become so preoccupied with sexual thoughts and behaviors that your daily functioning is impaired. People who continue to engage in sexual activities regardless of any negative consequences they might cause can be diagnosed with sex addiction or compulsive sexual behavior. A person can have a high libido without being diagnosed with sex addiction. A person with this condition will expend extreme time and means fulfilling their sexual urges, just as if they were addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Sex is good for you and provides many health benefits, like stress reduction, decreasing anxious and depressive symptoms, and reducing pain. These benefits can help whether you are having partnered or solo sex. Sexuality is yours to claim, identify, and enjoy.