7 little-known health benefits of sex

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published June 17, 2020

Key Takeaways

Americans are having less sex than they did 20 years ago, according to a recent survey study of trends in the frequency of sexual activity among US adults aged 18-44 years from 2000 to 2018. And, if you think the pandemic’s quarantine measures may have affected this dry spell for the better, think again. Most US adults actually reported a decrease in their sexual behavior during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study by Indiana University researchers. 

So, what’s the big deal, you ask? Obvious implications for population growth aside, sex is intrinsically linked to health and well-being. Studies have shown that infrequent sex or abstinence can increase anxiety, cause physical pain, worsen immunity, increase prostate cancer risk, and disturb sleep. On the flip side, having sex can improve your health and quality of life. While some health benefits of intercourse—like increased physical activity, better mental health, and improved sleep—may seem like a given, there are some additional little-known perks to “ruffling the sheets.”

Here are seven unexpected benefits of engaging in regular sex.

Sharper memory

Sure, sex can spice up your life. But, did you know that sex can also sharpen your brain? In a small study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers found that in heterosexual women aged 18-29 years, self-reported frequency of intercourse was linked to better memory of abstract words (but not for neutral faces). 

“Because memory for words depends to a large extent on the hippocampus, whereas memory for faces may rely to a greater extent on surrounding extra-hippocampal structures, our results appear to be specific for memory believed to rely on hippocampal function,” the authors wrote.

“This may suggest that neurogenesis in the hippocampus is higher in those women with a higher frequency of [penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI)], in line with previous animal research. Taken together, these results suggest that PVI may indeed have beneficial effects on memory function in healthy young women,” they concluded.

Improved heart health

Erectile dysfunction (ED) is known to predict cardiovascular disease (CVD), but how does sex relate to heart disease otherwise? Results from a high-powered study published in the American Journal of Cardiology demonstrate that having less sex could be bad for the ticker regardless of erectile status in community-dwelling men aged 40 to 70 years. By means of multivariate models controlled for age, ED, and other covariates, the researchers found that having sex once monthly vs ≥ 2 times weekly was linked to increased risk of CVD.

So, how does sex boost heart health? The authors proposed different reasons. For one, those engaging in frequent sexual activity may be healthier in ways not reflected in the data, and sex may protect heart health in some fashion. Additionally, those who have frequent sex may be in a supportive relationship with a stable partner, thus boosting heart health via stress reduction and social support.

Lower blood pressure

Let’s face it, for most, sex is a pleasurable, stress-relieving activity. So, is it any surprise that it could lower blood pressure? In one study that looked at the relationship between sexual patterns and blood pressure reactivity to stress, people who had PVI (but no other sexual activities) had less reactivity and/or lower baseline levels of stress vs those who reported other or no sexual activities. In addition, people who only masturbated or had partnered sex without PVI had 14 mmHg more systolic blood pressure reactivity than those who had PVI but not the other behaviors. 

After accounting for confounding variables, the author suggested that the effect of intercourse on blood pressure was greater than other variables in the literature.

Greater pair-bonding

Previous research suggets that sex facilitates pair bonding (which has been shown to be key for sustaining romantic love and maintaining a successful marriage and family). But, how exactly do sexual partners remain bonded in the long-term? The answer may be sexual afterglow (aka sexual satisfaction), according to a study published in Psychological Science. In pooled studies, researchers found that among couples who self-reported sexual activity/sexual satisfaction for 14 days and marital satisfaction at 4 and 6 months, those experiencing stronger afterglow (about ≥ 48 hours post-coitus) had higher levels of marital satisfaction at baseline and over the long term. Based on these results, the authors inferred that sex facilitates pair-bonding. 

Headache relief

Sex may help relieve headache in those with migraine or cluster headaches, according to the results of an observational study published in Cephalagia. Researchers dispatched a questionnaire that asked about sexual activity during headache and its effect on headache intensity to 800 patients with migraine and 200 patients with cluster headaches. 

Overall, 34% of respondents reported sexual activity during migraine, with 60% reporting improvement of migraine symptoms and 33% reporting decompensation. With cluster headache, 31% reported sex during an attack, with 37% reporting an improvement in symptoms (91% of them reported moderate to complete relief). 

“[S]exual activity can lead to partial or complete relief of headache in some migraine and a few cluster headache patients,” concluded the authors.

Youthful appearance

According to a white paper published by Planned Parenthood, having sex more frequently could do more than rejuvenate your love life. In a 10-year study of factors associated with youthful appearance that included over 3,5000 European and American men and women, participants whose ages were frequently underestimated by 7-12 years were classified as “superyoung” by a panel of judges. Among these men and women, one of the strongest correlates of youthful appearance was an active sex life. On average, “superyoung” participants had sex three times weekly compared with the control group’s average of twice a week. The “superyoung” were also more comfortable with their sexual identities.

Better mental health

In a large study representative of the Swedish population, researchers examined the frequency of PVI, noncoital sex, and masturbation during a 30-day period, with endpoints including satisfaction parameters.

“The results are consistent with evidence that specifically PVI frequency, rather than other sexual activities, is associated with sexual satisfaction, health, and well‐being,” wrote the authors.

On a final note, in more global terms, a number of observational studies have demonstrated that frequency of PVI is associated with longevity. However, it remains to be elucidated whether other types of sexual activity are linked to longer life.

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