If you ask people why they eat well or go to the gym, you’d probably get a lot of answers like “it’s good for me.” But if you took a random survey of people on the street and asked them “why do you have sex?” you probably wouldn’t get many responses gushing over the health benefits.
Actually, though, sex and overall health are closely related:
- Sexual function (including libido) is one barometer of overall health (not the only one, and not even the most important one, but it is significant).
- Having sex is good for you, especially if you enjoy it.
It’s the perfect example of how healthy behaviors aren’t actually all about drudgery and asceticism – first butter is good for you, and then vegetables are actually delicious, and now sex is something you can do “for your health” with a straight face!
Here’s a look at the ways that sexual function is a sign of overall well-being, and how having sex can actually give your health a boost.
Sexual Function is one sign of good health.
It's a pretty clinical term, but "sexual function" is really just an overall word for libido + physical ability to have sex. So if you have a healthy sex drive, if sex is enjoyable for you, if you don’t have problems like erectile dysfunction, and if you can have sex without pain or discomfort, then your sexual function is good.
Connecting sexual function to health is a little tricky:
- Different people naturally have different levels of libido. Having a naturally lower sex drive (i.e. you didn’t get sick and lose your sex drive as a result; it’s always been that way) isn’t pathological; it’s a normal variation in human biology.
- Different people express or feel sex drive in different ways, and none of them are better than others.
- Changes in sex drive over the course of a lifetime (e.g. at menopause) are normal and don’t necessarily indicate anything wrong.
But with that said, sexual function is useful in measuring overall health, provided they’re not taken out of context. In general, people who are well-nourished and healthy have energy to spare for things like reproduction, but people who are poorly-nourished or unhealthy are more likely to have sexual dysfunction, because their body is shutting down the extras to preserve energy for more important things.
In particular, extreme calorie restriction, unhealthy weight loss, overexercising, or other disordered food behavior can cause loss of libido, since body fat is essential for producing sex hormones. Ironically, many people who start a diet to “look better naked” end up not even enthused about the sex they started the diet to have. So if Paleo (or any kind of “healthy eating”) has completely tanked your sex drive, that’s a serious problem and it’s time to reassess whether you’re actually eating enough, particularly enough fat and carbs.
Many chronic diseases are also associated with low sex drive or sexual dysfunction:
- Chronic stress
- Hypertension (unfortunately, treatments for hypertension can also affect libido, one more argument for avoiding the problem with diet if at all possible).
- Diabetes (up to 75% of men with diabetes have erectile dysfunction!)
- Cardiovascular disease (particularly with erectile dysfunction)
- Chronic kidney disease
- Obesity (in men and in women)
In other words, if your sexual function is unusually or distressingly low, or if it’s suddenly become an issue when it wasn’t before, there might be something bigger going on that needs addressing.
The good news is that addressing these chronic diseases and making healthy choices can help improve various markers of sexual function. For example, this study describes how exercise improves sexual satisfaction along with everything else. Even in men undergoing hormone suppression, exercise can maintain libido at normal levels.
In other words, healthy sexual function is one sign of overall well-being. It's not just a fringe problem, and it's not unrelated - sexuality is an important part of physical health.
Sex is Good For You
Sexual function isn’t just an effect of good health, though; it can also be a cause. Once science moved on from the anti-masturbation propaganda of the early 20th century, researchers started finding all kinds of unexpected benefits from a healthy sex life.
In this study, researchers studied men in Wales. The results speak for themselves:
Mortality risk was 50% lower in the group with high orgasmic frequency than in the group with low orgasmic frequency, with evidence of a dose-response relation across the groups…the gradient was most marked for deaths from coronary heart disease.
More specifically, sex has important stress-buffering and hormonal benefits.
Sex, and specifically orgasm, releases the hormone oxytocin, which often gets simplified to “the bonding hormone” or “the love hormone” but is actually much more complicated than that.
Oxytocin doesn’t spontaneously make people fall in love with each other (if it did, women giving birth would be constantly falling in love with their OB/GYNs, since childbirth releases much more oxytocin than any kind of orgasm). It also isn’t some kind of scarce resource that you “use up” after having sex with one person (if that were true, then mothers wouldn’t be able to love any baby after their first).
What oxytocin does seem to do is strengthen bonds that are already there – in other words, it improves your social connection to the person you’re having sex with. Social connections are crucial for health, so this already counts as a major plus. Oxytocin is also a powerful stress buffer; it helps turn down the stress response in general. Since stress is so bad for every aspect of health, it’s not hard to see how this would be a major benefit.
Sex also raises testosterone levels, both in men and in women. And that’s good for both sexes: it’s not just men who could use a little extra testosterone. Increased testosterone levels seem to have benefits for physical health (especially building that all-important muscle), mental health, and relationship satisfaction. After going over all the benefits, one of the experts in this study concludes that:
satisfactory and frequent sexual activity should be prescribed as a medicine to cure several intrapsychic (depression and other specific personality subtypes appearing to be significant risk factors for orgasmic infrequency), relational (marital problems), and physical diseases in order to improve both general and sexual health.
There’s also an interesting discussion in the study above of how the hormonal effects of orgasm (from masturbation or from partner sex) might have anti-depressant effects in women specifically. There is some evidence for this – for example, in this study, watching an 8-minute “erotic film” increased positive affect (feeling good) and decreased anxiety – but unfortunately we’re still waiting on controlled trials that can show causation instead of just association to prove it.
Other Benefits of Sex
Sex also has benefits beyond just the hormones. For example, there’s some evidence that in men, ejaculation (from masturbation or partner sex) may reduce the risk of prostate cancer through a variety of pathways, including reducing the accumulation of carcinogens in prostatic fluid and slowing the growth of cancerous cells.
Having a healthy sex life might also strengthen the immune system by raising levels of an antibody called Immunoglobulin A (IgA).
Summing it Up.
As the old activist buttons used to say, “sex is nice, and pleasure is good for you!” Without making sex into the One True Sign of health or disease (it isn’t), healthy sexual function is one sign of overall well-being, and sex itself has significant health benefits. To put it very simply, pleasure is an important part of human wellness. Sex is just one type of pleasure (and it’s certainly possible to be both healthy and completely abstinent), but it’s an important one, and the health benefits are certainly a nice bonus!