Sunday, September 9, 2007

Is Sex Good for You?

Maybe for different reasons for women and men, but the answer is yes.

Sex is healthy for the prostate.

Chronic prostate irritation, or prostatitis, can result in pelvic discomfort as well as problems with urinating frequency and urgency. Doctors often recommend routine sexual activity to men with prostatitis because ejaculations help flush the prostate clean. The gland’s function is to contribute to the production of seminal fluid, and regular evacuations represent a pleasurable bit of self-care.

However, the recommendation is difficult to follow when inflammation from prostatitis impairs sexual functionality. Medication for the prostate or a pill like Viagra can help break the cycle and enable a man to perform. As his sexual function gets better, his urinary function may get better until generally he’s having fewer problems. A man won’t become ill from not having sex (regardless of complaints to the contrary), but being active does promote better prostate health.

In women, sex maintains tissue elasticity and moisture.

A regular sex life is important for maintaining healthy tissue as women age. There is something to the adage ‘Use it or lose it. Especially in perimenopausal and menopausal women, sex maintains the integrity of vaginal and vulvar tissues. As hormone levels go down, a consistent sexual life will maintain the elasticity and moisture in those tissues.

Dashed expectations can lead to real pain.

Infamously, a man can experience dull pain in the pelvis when a sexual act is cut short prior to climax. As the male body prepares for orgasm, one of the physiologic parameters is the increase of blood flow in the pelvis. When you’re stimulated to the point that you should be reaching orgasm—and, for whatever reason, you’re prevented from reaching it—there is pelvic engorgement of the blood vessels in the pelvis.

That fullness in the veins leads to the ache. Contrary to what one may have guessed based on a schoolyard education, the pain doesn’t result from backed-up seminal fluid in the testicles (in fact, the testes are responsible for only about 1 percent of the ejaculate’s makeup). So why would testes in such a state be referred to as “blue” in the vernacular? Maybe they’re just sad.

Most claims about the health benefits of sex are subjective.

Sex fights cancer, limits depression, boosts the immune system, reduces risk of stroke, improves sense of smell and achieves world peace. Barring a handful of small studies, there is little science behind these claims.

What we do know is that people have a sense of well-being when they are physically active and when they enjoy intimate relationships. In these ways, sex shares in developing a healthy state of mind and body. The evidence is subjective much beyond that. A roll in the hay may very well fix that crick in your neck, but don’t ask for proof. Just because we can’t prove it doesn’t mean we can’t believe it. It just means we can’t make these claims with scientific certainty.

No study has established sex as a painkiller.

Because orgasm promotes a spike in the production of the pain-dulling hormones endorphin and cortisol, it has been posited that sex relieves all kinds of aches and pains, including rheumatism and migraines. Most people basking in the afterglow will attest that their body feels good, and it’s a no-brainer that a satisfying encounter can temporarily relieve tension and stress (which lead to any number of ailments). But trying to relate sexual activity to pain relief is a difficult task. There is some relation to pain perception, but we don’t know exactly what it is. Certainly there’s endorphin release with orgasm, but not there’s not a chronic [continual] elevation of endorphin levels like we see in someone who exercises vigorously week after week. Therefore, it’s unlikely anyone could have enough sex to sustain hormone levels that might lead to genuine, sustained pain relief. It would be fun to try, though.

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