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Effects of sex on the brain How sex affects the brain How sex reduces stress  is sex good for mental health? what is released during sex why do you feel horny

Effects of Sex on the Brain: Is Sex Good for Mental Health?

Published Feb 13, 2023 | Updated Feb 8, 2024
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Certain things in life just feel good — like achieving a goal, finding a £20 bill, and having sex. 

There are numerous opinions surrounding sex; for many, it's a private, intimate experience. Although each person's sexual experience is unique, the way sex affects the brain is relatively similar for everyone. The chemicals released and the effects of sex on the body and mind can help reduce stress and boost mental health, which is why it interests mental health researchers.

Want to know how sex affects the brain? Here's what the research says, taking you on a neurochemical journey from that initial feeling of desire to the moment you have an orgasm. 

What are the three stages of sex?

Sex can be broken down into three core stages: desire, excitement, and orgasm

  1. Desire leads to sexual thoughts

  2. Excitement involves bodily changes, arousal, and the act of sex

  3. Orgasm is the final, most pleasurable stage — it's also the shortest

Although orgasm is quick, the chemicals released during this stage help promote closeness. This allows partners to develop a monogamous, trusting relationship. 

Dr. Helen Kaplan, a pioneer in sex therapy, created these three stages. They relate to her work on love, focusing on the progression of lust, attraction, and attachment. Like falling in love, the stages of sex involve different brain chemicals.

As you transition through the three stages listed above, your body and mind will respond accordingly. For those experiencing sexual issues, addressing deficient chemical levels, such as low dopamine, is often an ideal starting point [2]

How are dopamine and sexual desire linked?

Dopamine is the brain chemical that influences motivation and is activated by pleasurable activities. Since this chemical drives sexual desire, it can make you seek a familiar, rewarding feeling. Think about a first date and the butterflies you experience. Your attraction and longing for a new potential sexual partner can drive motivation and encourage actions toward sexual arousal.

During the excitement phase, the body responds to sexual desire as well as physical and mental stimulation. This association is based on previously known rewarding feelings and positive sexual reinforcement. While the exact mechanisms are unclear, dopamine plays a significant role during the initial transition from desire to excitement and arousal [3].

Despite that, researchers aren't entirely sure about dopamine's role when considering gender differences and sexual desire. One theory is that sex steroid levels in the brain contribute to the gender-related effect of dopamine [4].

Desire may relate to innate safety emotions

During feelings of sexual desire, the emotional and safety area of the brain is activated. This relationship has been confirmed via brain scans, showcasing increased activity in the brain's emotion area during the development of arousal. Based on this association, this brain area may link emotional significance and sexual experience. These findings suggest arousal stems from innate safety emotions, which can lead to human attachment [5] 

Brain chemicals released during intercourse and orgasm

So, what is released during sex

During sex, your brain releases high levels of dopamine and serotonin. These two chemicals are known as "happy hormones" and are released during intercourse and orgasm. The brain chemical oxytocin is also released, which promotes feelings of trust and bonding. Oxytocin is called the "love hormone" because it's linked to the attachment phase of long-term bonding and love [3]

These two chemicals are dominant during sexual interactions. Boosting dopamine can promote healthy sexual activity and decrease sexual issues in those lacking this feel-good hormone.

Healthy dopamine levels = healthy sex life

Sex appears to be a highly physical activity. However, this act is primarily fueled by mental processes. Since dopamine is involved in all stages of sex, beginning with desire and ending with orgasm, low levels can be associated with low sex drive and sexual performance issues. 

There are several ways to boost dopamine naturally, such as walking outdoors and playing with a pet. These short-term solutions can support a more comprehensive plan, such as increasing tyrosine intake, the building block to dopamine. Foods high in tyrosine include beans, dairy, eggs, and beef [6]. This protein building block is converted into L-DOPA and dopamine to promote healthier, more balanced levels. Tyrosine can be found in supplemental form such as the world’s 1st natural 800mg tyrosine capsule from fermented corn. You can read more and buy it here for £29.99.

Is sex good for mental health?

A healthy sex life can also contribute to positive mental health benefits, including: [7]

  • Stress reduction - The answer to how sex reduces stress is through an influx of oxytocin to increase positive emotions [8]

  • Decrease in anxiety and depression-related symptoms- brain chemicals released during sex improve mood, contentment and decrease pain. Those with healthy sexual lives report happiness and higher quality of life [9].

  • Improved self-esteem - Higher serotonin levels are associated with higher self esteem [10]. Sex helps improve serotonin and levels of other brain chemicals.

  • Increased intimacy and closeness with a partner following an orgasm, as oxytocin promotes bonding.

So, if you've ever wondered — "why do you feel horny" and "what is released during sex" — now you have a good idea of how your brain and related chemicals influence your experiences. To promote a healthier sex life, you must consider how sex affects the brain and ways to increase dopamine levels. 

Bottom line: The complex progression of desire, arousal, and orgasm isn't fully understood. While there are many variables to consider, brain chemicals play a pivotal role in this primitive behavior and the feelings that relate to it. As you move through the various stages of sex, neurochemical changes unfold, contributing to your present and future experiences. 

 References

  1. East Carolina University (n.d.). Helen Singer Kaplan’s 3 Stage Model of Sexual Response.
  2. Both, S. et al. (2005). Effect of a single dose of levodopa on sexual response in men and women. Neuropsychopharmacology: official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology30(1), 173–183.

  3. Calabrò, R. S. et al. (2019). Neuroanatomy and function of human sexual behavior: A neglected or unknown issue? Brain and behavior9(12).

  4. Cyders, M. A. et al. (2016). An fMRI Study of Responses to Sexual Stimuli as a Function of Gender and Sensation Seeking: A Preliminary Analysis. Journal of sex research53(8), 1020–1026.

  5. Salu, Y. (2013). The role of the amygdala in the development of sexual arousal. Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality. 16. Available from: http://www.ejhs.org/volume16/Amygdala.html

  6. Kühn, S. et al. (2019). Food for thought: association between dietary tyrosine and cognitive performance in younger and older adults. Psychological research83(6).

  7. Oregon Health & Science University. The Benefits of a Healthy Sex Life. Center for Women's Health. Available from: https://www.ohsu.edu/womens-health/benefits-healthy-sex-life

  8. Love T. M. (2018). The impact of oxytocin on stress: the role of sex. Current opinion in behavioral sciences23, 136–142. 

  9. Freak-Poli, R. et al.. (2016). Happiness, rather than depression, is associated with sexual behaviour in partnered older adults. Age and Ageing.

  10. Sylwester, R. (1997). The Neurobiology of Self-Esteem and Aggression. Educational Leadership, [online] 54(5), pp.75–79.

 

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