10 Surprising Benefits of Sex

Erin Kisby for Health Smart magazine speaks to Tanya and other professionals about sex:

Looking for a new way to boost your health? A growing body of research has a surprising suggestion: have more sex

Want to do something that not only feels good, but also is good for you? From boosting your immunity, to burning kilojoules, getting a better night sleep and reducing pain, a regular and pleasurable sex life with a partner or yourself – you don’t always have to have a partner – can do all this and more, says counsellor and sex therapist Tanya Koens. The benefits go beyond boosting your physical wellbeing, sex can also strengthen emotional bonds and keep couples connected, she says.

Still need convincing? A fulfilling love-life doesn’t have to be put on the backburner as a result of a hectic lifestyle. Contrary to popular belief, a marathon of sexual activity isn’t always necessary for a satisfying experience, researchers from the Pennsylvania University found just three to 13 minutes of love-making is considered satisfactory by both men and women. “Sometimes you feel like grabbing dinner at the drive through, other times you want to go to Tetsuya’s and linger over a three-hour degustation dinner – the same goes for sex – and that’s okay,” reassures Koens. So whether you’re in the mood for takeaway or a fine dining experience, here are 10 surprising reasons having sex will put a spring in your step and have you saying, “Yes, tonight dear!”       

1. Sex is a heart protector

The more sex you have the more you may be protecting your heart from disease, suggests a new study of men cited in the American Journal of Cardiology. The researchers found men who only had sex once a month or less had a 45 per cent increased risk of cardiovascular disease compared to men who reportedly had sex at least two to three times a week. While the study didn’t review women, that doesn’t mean your heart won’t benefit from doing a little horizontal tangoing. According to the Heart Foundation of Australia menopausal women may be at an increased risk of heart disease due to a reduction of the hormone oestrogen, which appears to provide some protection during the reproductive years. The good news for your heart is sex increases levels of oestrogen in women, says Dr Rosie King, sex therapist, educator and author of Where Did My Libido Go? (Random House).    

2. Sex is a mood booster

The flood of feel-good chemicals, such as oxytocin and endorphins, released during love making may explain your post-sex afterglow. But did you know exposure to your partner's semen during sex may also play a role in the high spirits you experience post coital? A controversial preliminary study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests when semen is absorbed through the vagina they may help to boost women's mood. Semen contains a range of hormones, including testosterone and oestrogen, both of which have been shown to improve mood. Gordon Gallup and colleagues at the State University of New York divided 293 female students into groups on the basis of how often their partners wore condoms. They used standard psychological tests to assess how happy they were and their overall mood. They found women whose partners never used condoms were happiest, followed by women whose partners sometimes used condoms. Women whose partners always used or usually used condoms were less happy. But Gallup, urged couples to continue to practice safe sex. "I want to make it clear that we are not advocating that people abstain from using condoms," he said. "Clearly an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease would more than offset any advantageous psychological effects of semen."

3. Sex reduces stress

Stressful day?  Hit the sack. Having sex may reduce stress by inhibiting anxiety responses in the brain, reports a University of Cincinnati study. It gets better. The researchers also found the reduced-stress effects continued for at least seven days, suggesting a long-term benefit. Further research from the University of Paisley, Scotland also found having sex at least once over a two-week period may help keep stress at bay. The researchers monitored how various forms of sex affected blood pressure levels in a stressful situation. For a fortnight, participants kept diaries of how often they engaged in various forms of sex. They then underwent a stress test involving public speaking and performing mental arithmetic out loud. Volunteers who had had intercourse were found to be the least stressed, and their blood pressure returned to normal faster than those who had engaged in other forms of sexual activity, such as masturbating. Those who abstained from any form of sex had the highest blood pressure response to stress. Intercourse may be more intimate than other kinds of fooling around, which may lead to a more effective release of oxytocins, a hormone associated with intimacy and reduced stress, said Stuart Brody, the study's author.

4. Sex is a pain reliever 

The next time a headache is making you feel lousy, popping a painkiller may take the edge off the pain, but it’s not as fun as slipping between the sheets. Oxytocin, produced during sex, is an effective pain reliever. And if you reach orgasm your pain threshold may increase by more than 70 per cent making you less sensitive to pain found research from Rutgers, The State University. Dr Rosie King agrees, saying, sex can relieve pain from headache, arthritis, stiff neck and period pain. An orgasm brings further pain relief through the release of endorphins, the body’s natural heroin or morphine, which also creates feelings of relaxation and wellbeing, she says.

5. Sex is a kilojoule blaster  

Is getting fit and burning off some unwanted weight at the top of your to-do list? Then grab your partner and have an adults-only workout. Put simply, sex burns calories, says Dr King. In fact, sex is so good for your silhouette having intercourse burns almost the same amount of energy as walking one kilometer and then climbing two flights of stairs, she says. Let’s face it epic love making isn’t always possible, that’s okay, low key lovemaking once a week burns 10,000kJ a year. That’s equivalent to 10 Mars Bars or 30 apples. “You’ll burn even more if you’re the athletic type in the bedroom and like to swing from the chandeliers,” says Dr King. Not only will you feel trimmer, sex is also a form of resistance training, and tones your muscles. “When we become sexually aroused the muscles of your bodies tense up, and this sustained muscle tension increases sexual arousal and helps to trigger climax,” explains Dr King. Having sex is a very pleasurable form of isometric exercise. So turn on and tone up!

6. Sex is a sleep improver

Find yourself tossing and turning at night? According to latest figures a restorative night’s sleep vital to wellbeing may be eluding more than one million Australians. Often a decent night sleep can be hard to come by for the busy and stressed. Thankfully there are a number of ways you can ensure you get a solid night’s sleep, from avoiding late night computer use, to following a regular bedtime routine and creating a restful sleep environment. Don’t forget sex. The physical exertion is in itself enough to help you nod off. But it’s also the release of the feel good chemical – and nature’s sedative – oxytocin that reduces stress and promotes relaxation and sleepiness encouraging a restful night sleep, says Koens.

7. Sex may help you live longer

Over the past 100 years, female life expectancy has increased by 25 years, raising it to an impressive 83.9 years, reports the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It may not come as a surprise to you that being a non smoker, drinking in moderation, maintaining a healthy body weight and eating a balanced diet will all help you live life to your fullest and healthiest potential. But what may come as shock is a healthy sex life may also help you keep celebrating long after your 83rd birthday. The more sex – a form of physical activity – you have the more protected you may be from having a heart attack or sudden cardiac death, reports a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Not only does sex increase your heart rate and get your blood flowing, a range of protective hormones are also secreted, including DHEA, endorphins, growth hormone and oxytocins, says Dr King. Further explaining why sex may increase your life expectancy, Dr King points out that during sex there is a reduction of cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones that can shorten life.

8. Sex helps you look younger

Sunscreen helps shield your skin from sun-damage, helping you look younger for longer, and now it seems a healthy sex life may do the same thing. It’s true a regular and pleasurable sex life can promote a youthful appearance, confirms Koens. “This may be because it gets the blood flowing and raised oestrogen levels in women during sex makes their hair shinier and skin more supple.” Adding further clout to this suggested benefit is the finding that couples who make love three times a week may look more youthful than their less romantically inclined counterparts, reports Dr David Weeks, a clinical neuropsychologist in his co-authored book Secrets of the Superyoung. “Improving the quality of one's sex life can help a person to look between four and seven years younger,” he said. Significant reductions in stress, greater contentment, and better sleep may explain the anti-ageing effects of sex.  

9. Sex boosts your immune system

 If you want to keep coughs and sniffles at arm’s length, boost your immune system by getting busy in the bedroom. That’s according to a study that found a link between having sex once or twice a week and higher levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin A or IgA, which can protect you from getting colds and other infections. Scientists at Wilkes University took samples of saliva, which contain IgA, from college students who reported the frequency of sex they had. Those in the frequent group, who had sex once or twice a week had higher levels of IgA than those in the other three groups, who reported being abstinent, having sex less than once a week, or having it very often. The stress release experienced from having regular sex, may explain the protective effective sex has on your immune system.  

10. Sex strengthens your relationship

Having sex is one way to keep your emotional bond strong and keep you connected as a couple, says Koens. Oxytocin also known as ‘the cuddle chemical’ plays a role sexual arousal and orgasm but it also triggers feelings of bonding between partners making them feel close and connected and increases trust. However, there are times when physical intimacy is the last thing on your mind. Koens’ advice? “Don’t wait until you feel horny, because sometimes horny doesn’t always arrive especially if you’re tried, stressed or busy.” So get things started by giving your partner a hug, which research from the University of North Carolina found may stimulate an increase in oxytocin. “Guaranteed 90% of the time people who start to have sex really get into it and have a great time,” she says.

That’s how much a man may reduce his lifetime risk of prostate cancer by if he has an average of 21 or more ejaculations a month, reports a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

Spice it up Here are a few new ways to ensure you experience the benefits of the big O.

  1. Take a moment to sit down with your partner, grab a notebook, pencil and a bowl. Next you both need to write down everything you want to try in the bedroom one day, then the two of you need to put a tick next to the ones you’re willing to try. Two ticks and the suggestion goes in the bowl. “When you want to get romantic with your partner, suggest trying something from the bowl,” suggest Koens.
  2. Reading erotic fiction to each other is also another great way to help put a little spice into your sex life, and helps get you in the mood, says Koens.
  3. To increase your desire, enjoy a glass of red wine, as researchers found levels of sexual desire were higher in women who were moderate drinkers of red wine than in their counterparts who preferred other alcoholic drinks, or were teetotalers. The antioxidant compounds found in red wine may improve sexual functioning by increasing blood flow to key areas of the body, reports the study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. 
  4. To experience the benefits of a healthy sex life, a partner isn’t always required, found a recent study from Indiana University. They discovered not only is vibrator use common, but their use is associated with more positive sexual function – desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, pain and overall function.
  5. Snap on the rubber gloves and hand him an apron, a study in the Journal of Family Issues, found couples that share domestic chores have more sex. 

Top Tip

 “Be present when you’re making love, don’t go up inside your head and start thinking about your shopping list or worrying about how you may look, if you focus on what you’re doing and how it feels, this will help you stay in the moment and you’ll enjoy the experience a lot more,” advises Koens.