If having sex hasn’t been high on your agenda in the past 12 months, that’s okay. Studies suggest we’re having less sex, with a quarter of UK adults reporting having had none at all in the past year and 40% saying they’d had less sex because of lowered libido related to Covid anxiety.
But did you know that sex comes with many health benefits, including to help you deal with increased stress? Here are some of the proven reasons sex can be good for you.
1. It can help reduce stress and regulate your mood
Sex is a great way to reduce levels of stress. A recent study shows that emotional and physical intimacy, which doesn’t have to be sexual, helps to lower the stress chemical cortisol in men and women.
Sexual intimacy can also help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression as it triggers the release of three mood-boosting chemicals — dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins in particular are brain chemicals activated by exercise and sex with natural opiate-like properties that can help to reduce pain and regulate mood.
2. It boosts bonding and libido
Dopamine is a chemical released by the brain in response to pleasure. It plays a major role in reward-motivated behaviour and actually activates libido through flirting or the anticipation of seeing, talking to or being with your partner.
Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, is activated by touch, intimacy and sex and promotes a deeper sense of bonding between couples. It’s also the hormone that bonds a mother to her newborn baby and has anti-inflammatory and calming effects.
The good news is that even just holding hands, showing affection and cuddling up with your partner is enough to trigger the release of this powerful chemical and get you in the mood for sex.
3. It promotes better sleep
That post-orgasmic wave of sleepiness you get is the release of the hormone prolactin, which induces a relaxing, soporific effect in both men and women after sex. Prolactin is produced in the pituitary gland and is usually associated with breastfeeding and lactation in women, but men produce it too in smaller amounts.
The combined effect of oxytocin, the lowering of cortisol (see above) and the increase in prolactin after an orgasm suggests that sexual activity may be part of an underlying neuro-hormonal mechanism that makes it easier to fall asleep after sex. A recent study shows that sex at bedtime can help women who suffer from insomnia feel more relaxed and get a better night’s sleep.
4. It can enhance brain power
Whatever your age, research suggests regular sex can benefit your brain health. In a recent study when women aged 18–29 were asked to memorise lists of faces and words, those who reported having more frequent sex had better verbal recall.
One theory (which scientists are investigating further) is that sexual activity may promote the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the hippocampus — the part of the brain to do with learning and memory. In another study, this time of adults aged 50-89, sexual activity was associated with better memory in men and women.
5. It helps maintain sexual function
Weak pelvic floor muscles can lead to sexual dysfunction. In fact, research shows that having sex at least once a week may help prevent erectile dysfunction in elderly men. A more recent study shows that sexually active women have stronger pelvic floor muscles and higher sexual function.
During sex, you use your pelvic floor, a group of muscles surrounding your genitals that support your pelvic organs, abdomen and spine.
In men, pelvic floor muscles help coordinate and control ejaculation. In women, a strong pelvic floor helps to increase sensitivity and lead to stronger orgasms.
There are lots of reasons why pelvic floor muscles can become weak, like ageing, pregnancy, childbirth and being overweight. Having sex leads to natural contractions of your pelvic floor that help keep those muscles toned and strong (and enhances sexual pleasure).
6. It just makes you happy
If you’re having physically and emotionally satisfying sex with a primary partner, this leads to greater happiness in both men and women. Regular physically and emotionally satisfying sex with your partner keeps you topped up with the love hormone oxytocin, enhancing bonding and emotional intimacy. One study shows that the sexual afterglow of loving, pleasurable sex can last between couples for as long as 2 days.
Solo sex has benefits, too
If you’re not currently having regular sex with another person, you don’t have to miss out on the benefits.
Like partner sex, masturbation that leads to sexual pleasure or orgasm also triggers the release of feel-good hormones that include endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and prolactin. These can help to alleviate stress, improve sleep quality, reduce pain (including, one study says, migraines and period pain ) and leave you feeling calmer, happier and more relaxed. Masturbation can also help to improve sexual confidence as it allows you to get to know and feel more comfortable with your own body.