The Health Benefits of Sex
Is sex good for you? It certainly can be. The many potential health benefits of sex include everything from improving your mood to strengthening your heart. Consensual sex, where both partners want to be there and are taking any appropriate precautions, can be an important part of a person’s life and make a big difference in both their physical health and overall sense of well-being.
In fact, one study of middle-aged men found that the more sex they had, the more likely they were to say they were in good health.1 Don’t have a partner? Having sex with yourself can also have some of the same health benefits. Masturbation can be a great tool for relaxation and also can have some specific health benefits.
For example, frequent ejaculation has been suggested to lower the risk of prostate cancer. Orgasm can be effective for helping with pain.3 Arousal has benefits as well, no orgasm required.
Below, find 10 of the ways that sex can potentially improve your health.
Is sex good for your heart? The truth is, scientists don’t really know. Most of the studies looking at sex and the heart look at whether sexual activity increases the risk of a cardiac event like a heart attack. It’s far rarer for studies to try and ascertain whether sex is good for the heart.
There is some evidence to suggest that more sexual activity reduces stroke and heart disease risk in middle-aged men (45-59).4 There is also some evidence for improved heart rate variability and a lower death rate for people who engage in vaginal intercourse.5
In addition, people who have more sex are less likely to die of heart attack or other causes, but—one study suggests—some of that could be due to the fact that healthier people may be more likely to be having more sex.6
The best evidence that sex may be good for your heart is the evidence that suggests sex is simply good exercise. It’s been found to be equivalent to mild to moderate physical activity, like a brisk walk or climbing stairs. Sex can also involve stretching and strength training, depending on how you do it. And we all know that exercise is good for the heart.
One study confirmed that sex was the equivalent of moderate-intensity exercise and measured an average energy expenditure of 101 calories for men and 69 calories for women.
That said, research also suggests that too much sex could potentially put a strain on your heart—just like too much exercise. What’s too much? It likely depends on your age and your overall health.
Some of the difficulty with studying the effects of sex on the heart is that the heart also has effects on sex. Individuals with high blood pressure are likely to have decreased sexual function.
In particular, in at least one large study, hypertension has been associated with reduced erectile function and lower-quality erections.8 However, other studies have not always found similar associations between heart health and sexual quality of life.
Strong Immune System
There is a large body of evidence suggesting that sexual activity can affect the health of the immune system. That said, the reported effects of sex on the immune system are highly variable, differing across the sexes as well as across other factors, such as mental health.
Some of these differences may be due to the changes in immune function that occur across the menstrual cycle, which may have implications for fertility
That said, one of the few studies that looked explicitly at sexual frequency in young people found that more frequent sex increased the amount of IgA antibodies present in saliva—and possibly people’s ability to fight infection.
It’s important to note that one of the ways that sex could improve immune function is by reducing stress. High stress levels are well known to decrease immune function and increase the likeliness a person will become sick.11
It’s possible that the answer may be that sex improves immune function only when it’s a stress reducer, but it isn’t helpful when it’s a source of stress,
Some people find sex to be a good stress reliever. But can that be demonstrated biologically? The answer appears to be yes. Several studies have looked at the effects of sex on the stress hormone cortisol.
One fascinating study looked at the effects of intimacy on the stress levels of 183 heterosexual couples. What they found was that, in times of stress, higher levels of partner intimacy made it easier to cope (for women), and to recover (for both).
Interestingly, this and other studies have suggested that it’s not just sex that reduces stress—it’s affection and other types of intimacy. The connection appears to be just as important as the exercise. Furthermore, the association goes both ways. Sex reduces stress and makes people happier, and happier, less stressed people have more sex.
Does sex help you get better sleep? People certainly think that it does. When asked about how sex (either alone or with a partner) affects their sleep, most people say that they sleep better after having an orgasm. They also say that they fall asleep faster.14 So people think that sex is a good sleep aid, but is it?
The jury is still out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to study sleep quality. It’s even harder to study it in relation to sex. After all, good sleep studies require a lot of observation and equipment, neither of which is terribly conducive to getting in the mood.
People who experience chronic headaches are always looking for new ways to make them better. It turns out that, for some people, sex can help.
In a study of 1,000 patients attending a headache clinic, researchers found out that having sex during a headache might be an option for relief.15 Of the people who responded to the study, 60% of people with migraines and 37% of people with cluster headaches reported that sex helped. Furthermore, when it helped, relief was usually significant.
Unfortunately, sex doesn’t work as a headache remedy for everyone. A third of people with migraines, and half of those with cluster headaches, said that trying to have sex made things worse.
How people feel about themselves is linked to their experience of sexual enjoyment. Young people who enjoy sex more also experience higher self-esteem and a greater sense of autonomy.
Which comes first? To date, the data is unclear. It wouldn’t be surprising if feeling better about yourself improves your ability to enjoy sex, as well as vice versa.
Menstrual Cramp Relief
It’s widely accepted that orgasms can help relieve menstrual cramps. Unfortunately, it’s well accepted but there are very little data to support this belief. People have different experiences of sexual penetration during menstruation, with some finding it pleasurable while others find it uncomfortable.
However, not all arousal and stimulation requires penetration. If nothing else, stimulation to orgasm may provide a distraction, even if it doesn’t directly offer pain relief.
Lower Risk of Prostate Cancer
One of the most-discussed benefits of sex, specifically ejaculation, is a reduction in the risk of prostate cancer. The initial large studies calling attention to this association were published in 2004.
More than a decade later, there is even more evidence. Men who ejaculate more frequently (more than 21 times a month, compared to four to seven times a month) are less likely to get prostate cancer.
Interestingly, there is some suggestion that vasectomy may slightly increase the risk of prostate cancer. It is unclear whether or not this is related to changes in orgasm and ejaculation.
However, it’s important to know that the absolute increase in risk is low. Therefore, if vasectomy is the most appropriate form of contraception for someone, prostate cancer risk should not be a reason to avoid it.
Data suggests that sex can help with memory, at least in older adults. A number of studies have suggested that sexual activity in the previous year is associated with better performance on memory tests.
As with other research on sex, differences are seen by gender and types of sexual activity. For example, in one study, masturbation was more helpful for cognitive function in women, while partner activity was more helpful in men.
In addition, as with research on stress, it appears that intimacy also has an effect on memory, beyond just participation in sex.
Live longer by having more sex? Assuming you avoid any particularly dangerous sexually transmitted infections, it might be possible.
A study published in 1997 looked at a group of middle-aged men over a period of 10 years. The men who had the most orgasms were half as likely to have died in that decade as those who had few orgasms. Now, it’s possible that that’s because the people who had more orgasms were healthier overall, but there may have been more going on.
That study found the biggest difference was in the risk of death from heart disease, and other studies have observed effects that are similar. That includes at least one study finding that after having a heart attack, those who had more sex were less likely to die.