By Lauren Tanchum, Designed by Gabriela Alford, Refinery29
Sure, sex is fun - that's nothing new. But, did you know that sex has secret benefits beyond the big O? Research shows that getting it on is proven to make you happier and healthier, long after you've left the bedroom. We're talking less stress, solid sleep, and even a sunnier outlook. (Yes, yes, yes!)
Every climax triggers the release of hormones whose effects have the power to restore harmony to mind, body and even our surrounding community. Good for you, good for us, good for all. Read on to see how your sex life can make the rest of your life that much better - as though you needed another reason.
Sex leads to better sleep
Sleep is essential to maintaining a stress-free and energetic lifestyle - and there are a variety of ways in which sexual pleasure can help us wind down. "Orgasm in men and women causes the release of oxytocin, one of the brain's stress-reducing chemicals," explains Dr. Paul Zak, Ph.d, author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. "In order to reach orgasm, one must be sufficiently relaxed or the brain inhibits this response." In other words, we have to relax to get in the mood for sex.
In addition, sex is energetic. ("At least, good sex is," Dr. Zak notes.) Muscle contractions and movement involved in sex burn energy stored in muscle mass. When that energy is depleted and the body is flooded with soothing hormones, we transition to an intuitively restful state. Those relaxing effects of orgasm might explain why many people masturbate in order to fall asleep. So, the next time insomnia hits, instead of popping Ambien, reach for a partner - or the Magic Wand.
Sex calms our minds
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 6.8 million adults are affected by general anxiety disorder, with women twice as likely to be affected than men. While sex alone won't cure anxiety, orgasms can help our brains reach a calmer state. The easiest way to get there is through masturbation, or what Dr. Christiane Northrup, author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom, prefers to call a practice of "self-cultivation."
"Self-cultivation can relieve anxiety by allowing a woman to sink into her own ability to experience bodily pleasure," Dr. Northrup says. When we reach states of physical pleasure, the body releases feel-good chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. "In short, they're the same kinds of chemicals that are in the medications given to women for depression or anxiety," she says. By giving ourselves orgasms, we can credit our bodies for the powerful feeling of ecstasy that is associated with the release of chemicals we produce involuntarily.
Sex tells PMS to shove it
For decades, researchers have known that sexual activity causes the release of oxytocin and loads of feel-good endorphins, both of which lower the sense of pain caused by premenstrual syndrome. Here's the really interesting thing: Both pain and pleasure register in the same parts of the brain.
So, what does that have to do with cramps? A lot, actually. Brain-imaging studies have found that during orgasm, women can withstand up to twice as much pain as usual. Not only will the endorphin rush restore you to homeostasis, it might also provide a respite from abdominal torture.
Sex makes you chill
"Sex and stress are closely linked, particularly for women," says Elizabeth Scott, author of 8 Keys to Stress Management. "Too much stress can negatively affect a woman's libido. Conversely, positive sexual experiences can be an effective and enjoyable source of stress relief." It's not all in your head, either: Sex can lower blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a hormone related to the "fight or flight response") by creating an abundance of hormones that relax us mentally and physically.
Most people think about the stress-relieving qualities of partnered sex, but "going solo" has its own aerobic benefits, says Dr. Betty Dodson, Ph.D, a sex educator in New York City. "Having stress-free orgasms with ourselves is an exercise for the heart," she says. "Deep breathing is good for our lungs, and our blood flow gets a workout, too. Meanwhile, actual orgasm slows down our brain waves, giving it a rest as we flex and release our pelvic floor muscles." And hey, it's cheaper than therapy.
Sex makes you more empathic
You know the old saying, "Make love, not war"? There's actually substantial scientific evidence to show that oxytocin - the "love hormone" - strengthens our emotional bonds with others. And, it's not just for women, either: A 2012 study found that when men in monogamous relationships were under the influence of oxytocin, they flirted significantly less with attractive women.
"Sex is the most powerful oxytocin-releasing activity scientists have discovered," explains Dr. Zak. "We have found that when the brain releases oxytocin, people are more trusting, generous and compassionate for up to an hour afterwards. Oxytocin connects us to other people; it makes us feel what other people feel." So, sex not only makes us feel closer to our romantic partners, it makes us treat strangers better, too. The rewarding effects of oxytocin prod us to express empathy and generosity more frequently, so why not make nice?