How Sex Helps Your Brain
New research shows it can boost long-term memory, slow aging and reduce anxiety
(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
If you’re reading this, you’re likely old enough to know — and even appreciate — something you may not have known when you were 20: The most important sexual organ human beings have is not located between their legs; it’s between their ears.
Your brain is the seat of your thoughts, your feelings and your actions. The slurry of chemicals and the pathways they travel in your brain help define your personality, and that’s pretty important in the bedroom. But while the brain has long been portrayed as command central, relaying orders to the rest of the body, the most recent science shows that the relationship is more subtle and dynamic: the brain works in tandem with the other organs of your body.
(MORE: What to Do About Loss of Libido)
In other words, your brain can help your sex life but, conversely, your sex life also can help your brain.
Can Sex Make You Smarter?
Earlier this year, a study done by a team of researchers at the University of Maryland found that regular sexual activity not only allowed for neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons in the brain, but also improved cognitive function, potentially helping people think more clearly.
We asked Dayu Lin, a neuroscientist and researcher at the NYU Langone Medical Center, to explain and she pointed out that the University of Maryland study was not the first to establish that sex can positively influence the brain.
A study done in 2010 found that sexual experience causes cell growth in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that's instrumental to long-term memory, explains Lin. This means sex can help prevent the decay that leads to memory loss and dementia.
You Glow, Girls
Barry Komisaruk and his team at Rutgers University have been studying female orgasms for 25 years. He and his team recently concluded a study that used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity by tracking changes in blood flow) to show that, in women, orgasm lights up as many as 30 areas of the brain. Remember, those lights represent blood flow and that blood is carrying a surge of nutrients and oxygen to your brain cells, which can definitely lead to a healthier brain.
By contrast, crossword puzzles, sudoku, and memory games that are often used to stimulate the brain work only on localized regions. So, tonight, put down the pencil and go for the — well, you know!
DHEA is a hormone that gets lots of news coverage as a supplement that may help fight the effects of aging. Turns out, taking DHEA may be risky for your health. In fact, the Mayo Clinic advises caution, noting that in high doses it has been linked to heart attack, heart disease and metabolic syndrome, and recommends taking DHEA under a doctor’s supervision. But the good news is that you can increase your production of DHEA with some good old-fashioned love-making, and this is a very good thing.
This naturally-produced DHEA has been shown to improve brain function. And, according to a study done at the University of Wisconsin, DHEA may promote new cell growth, too. Bonus: DHEA supports the immune system and is good for your skin, too.
“In clinical studies,” Lin says, “researchers notice that sexual experience decreases anxiety levels.” There’s a good reason for this. When you have sex, your brain gets a delicious cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters, including oxytocin (the bonding hormone), dopamine (the feel-good hormone), and serotonin (the serenity hormone), among others. Your brain generously shares this heady concoction with the rest of your body, and it acts as a powerful mood-enhancer, increasing your sense of well-being and, ultimately, relaxing you.
In fact, according to Dr. Daniel Amen, the superstar neuroscientist who owns and operates the Amen Clinics, orgasm soothes the same part of the brain that is calmed by pharmaceutical antidepressants, which may be why depression is less common in people who have sex regularly. If you’re currently taking an antidepressant, be sure to let your doctor know if it’s interfering with your libido. This is a notorious side effect of some antidepressants, and if you’re experiencing it, your doctor can help correct the problem.
Sex or Meditation?
Women’s brains are designed for multi-tasking, which helps to explain why they can be thinking about the grocery list, that weird rattle in the car, or an argument with our daughter-in-law during sex. All this changes during orgasm, however. As Komisaruk says, “Orgasm is a special case of consciousness,” an altered state where you're feeling, not thinking, so to speak. And the best path to a great orgasm is to keep our head in the game; to practice what is known as mindfulness — clear your mind and focus on the sensations.
Having mindful sex isn’t just good for your relationship; it’s also good for your brain. Scientists now know that one of the areas of the brain most affected by orgasm is the same area that is affected by deep meditation, or the brain’s “religion center.”
Raising Dopamine Levels
Given the amazing health benefits of sexual connection, it’s all the more alarming that Americans are having less sex than they have in the past, and much less than people in other countries. While more than 80 percent of us believe that sex is important for our health and well-being, only 48 percent are satisfied with their sex lives, according to a Sexual Wellbeing study conducted by Durex in 2013.
So how do we close the gap? The easy answer is to have more sex. In long-term relationships, dopamine levels can dip, meaning that sex is less exciting than it was when you first fell in love. But you can bring those dopamine levels up by trying new things together, and those things don’t have to be sexual (though they can be). Visiting new places and trying new activities, like ballroom dancing or whitewater rafting, can increase your dopamine levels enough to make sex more exciting.
Want an even easier point of entry? The Durex study suggests that for most of us — male and female — massage tops the list of things that would improve our sexual satisfaction.