Is Sex Necessary for Good Health?

— Fans of abstinence had better be sitting down.

”Saving yourself” before the big game, the big business deal, the big hoedown or the big bakeoff may indeed confer some moral benefit. But corporeally it does absolutely zip. There’s no evidence it sharpens your competitive edge.

The best that modern science can say for sexual abstinence is that it’s harmless when practiced in moderation. Having regular and enthusiastic sex, by contrast, confers a host of measurable physiological advantages, be you male or female. (This assumes that you are engaging in sex without contracting a sexually transmitted disease.)

In one of the most credible studies correlating overall health with sexual frequency, Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, tracked the mortality of about 1,000 middle-aged men over the course of a decade. The study was designed to compare persons of comparable circumstances, age and health.

Its findings, published in 1997 in the British Medical Journal, were that men who reported the highest frequency of orgasm enjoyed a death rate half that of the laggards.

The Many Benefits of Sex

Other studies (some rigorous, some less so) purport to show that having sex even a few times a week has an associative or causal relationship with the following:

Improved sense of smell: After sex, production of the hormone prolactin surges. This in turn causes stem cells in the brain to develop new neurons in the brain’s olfactory bulb, its smell center.

Reduced risk of heart disease: In a 2001 follow-up to the Queens University study mentioned above, researchers focused on cardiovascular health. Their finding? That by having sex three or more times a week, men reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke by half.

In reporting these results, study co-author Shah Ebrahim displayed the well-loved British gift for understatement: “The relationship found between frequency of sexual intercourse and mortality is of considerable public interest.”

Weight loss, overall fitness: Sex, if nothing else, is exercise. A vigorous bout burns some 200 calories — about the same as running 15 minutes on a treadmill or playing a spirited game of squash. The pulse rate, in a person aroused, rises from about 70 beats per minute to 150, the same as that of an athlete putting forth maximum effort.

British researchers have determined that the equivalent of six Big Macs can be worked off by having sex three times a week for a year. Muscular contractions during intercourse work the pelvis, thighs, buttocks, arms, neck and thorax.

Sex also boosts production of testosterone, which leads to stronger bones and muscles. Men’s Health magazine has gone so far as to call the bed the single greatest piece of exercise equipment ever invented.

Reduced depression: Such was the implication of a 2002 study of 293 women. American psychologist Gordon Gallup reported that sexually active participants whose male partners did not use condoms were less subject to depression than those whose partners did. One theory of causality: Prostoglandin, a hormone found only in semen, may be absorbed in the female genital tract, thus modulating female hormones.

Pain relief: Immediately before orgasm, levels of the hormone oxytocin surge to five times their normal level. This in turn releases endorphins, which alleviate the pain of everything from headache to arthritis to even migraine. In women, sex also prompts production of estrogen, which can reduce the pain of PMS.

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