Sex and Health

What would the world be like if everyone stopped having sex? Ratings for late-night talk shows would soar, and stock in Pampers would plummet. We'd have more time to think about other things, like a plan for peace in the Middle East or plot lines for the next great American novel. And we'd be miserable. The human brain is hard-wired to seek out and enjoy sex, a fact that helps explain the 6 billion people in the world.

Our brains are geared for sex -- and now there's strong evidence that our bodies are, too. There's increasing evidence that sex may benefit the body in ways that go beyond pleasure. At a time when so many people worry about sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, and other dangers of sex, the upside of passion shouldn't be forgotten.

Sex and long life

This celebration of sex starts -- where else? -- in the town of Caerphilly in South Wales. The town may not be a hotbed of romance, but it does have a claim to fame: Its residents helped lend evidence that regular sex may help prolong life.

A 10-year study of nearly 1,000 local middle-aged men found that regular orgasms cut the risk of premature death by 50 percent. In an article published in the British Medical Journal, the researchers concluded that "sexual activity may be protective of middle aged men's health." The link between sex and longevity is less clear for women, although one study from the early 1980s found that women who said they enjoyed sex at some point in their lives tended to live longer than those who didn't.

How could sex help prevent a premature death? For one thing, sex seems to be good for the heart. Let's return to Caerphilly: After adjusting for age and other risk factors, researchers determined that men who rarely had intercourse were twice as likely as men who had frequent sex to die of a heart attack. A much older study of Israeli women found a connection between sexual enjoyment and lower risk of a heart attack. Again, it seems that men benefit from frequency while women reap rewards from pleasure.

Love and exercise

Sex could help the heart in at least two different ways. There's some evidence that testosterone and other hormones produced during sex help lower the risk of heart attacks. And, of course, sex is good aerobic exercise, although it's not exactly the ultimate workout.

Although some media reports claim that sex can burn up to 200 to 300 calories, your mileage may vary. The calorie calculator produced by the Healthy Weight Forum estimates that a 170-pound person can burn 61.2 calories with 30 minutes of vigorous sex. In the same amount of time, that person could burn 183.6 calories gardening or 137.7 calories cleaning the house. (It just goes to show there's more to life than counting calories!)

There's also a theory under study that regular sex might help prevent certain types of cancer. Scientists have recently speculated that DHEA and oxytocin -- compounds produced by women when they are sexually aroused -- may help lower the risk of breast cancer. And a much talked-about (and joked-about) Australian study found that frequent ejaculations cut the risk of prostate cancer for men. Many of the ejaculations were the result of masturbation, putting a new healthy spin on an age-old pastime.

Finally, there's ample evidence that sex simply makes life better. Sexual stimulation floods the body with endorphins, compounds that provide a natural high while easing pain. If you're suffering from menstrual cramps, migraines, or arthritis, lovemaking just might bring relief. Sex is also a powerful sleep aid and a buffer against anxiety and depression.

For all of our human flaws, we're smart enough to know what's good for us.

References

Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The Health Benefits of Sexual Expression. Updated July, 2007.

Giles, GG et al. Sexual factors and prostate cancer. British Journal of Urology International. August 2003. 92(3): 211-216.

Smith, GD et al. Sex and death: are they related? Findings from the Caerphilly study. British Medical Journal. December 20, 1997. 315: 1641-1644.

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