And no, it’s not between your legs.
It’s the brain in your head.
What affects your brain affects your sex life — both positive and negative. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, PMS, substance abuse, and personality disorders have all been shown to impact sex. Some mental health issues can make having healthy sexual relationships very difficult. Emotional well-being and good sex both begin in the brain.
There is no denying that a healthy brain and sex life are integrally connected. Each benefits the other. Science has shown that the relationship between sex and the brain is reciprocal. A healthy brain can boost your sex life, and a healthy sex life benefits your brain.
The Neurochemicals of Sex
Your brain’s number one priority is the survival of the species. In the animal world, passing on DNA isn’t a sure thing. Survival rates can be low, and mating opportunities scarce. For this reason, your brain has many ways to encourage you to make the effort to procreate. Every creature alive today inherited the brain of its ancestors who did whatever it took to successfully reproduce. So the instinct is strong and well developed.
Let’s look at what happens in your head before, during, and after sex by learning about the neurochemicals involved.
Dopamine motivates you to take action and encourages the persistence required to meet your needs, seek reward, or approach a goal — whether it’s a sugar fix, the next level in a video game, money to pay the bills, or sex. The anticipation of the reward is what initially triggers good-feeling dopamine in your brain — urging you to move towards the reward. Then, you get another shot of dopamine when you successfully meet the need. All addiction is due to dopamine.
In both men and women, dopamine is crucial to libido and is activated by the chase of flirting, courting, and mating. When you experience desire or that tingly anticipation, it’s because of dopamine. Dopamine is essential for a man to have an erection. It’s one of the first chemicals to activate in the arousal process and sets off a cascade of other chemical interactions in a man’s body. In both genders, orgasm lights up the reward pathways in the brain and releases a surge of dopamine.
Oxytocin is stimulated by touch and social trust. It’s known as the love or bonding hormone and neurotransmitter. In animals, touch and trust go together. In humans, oxytocin is released by holding hands, feeling connected, and orgasm. Holding hands stimulates a small amount of oxytocin, but when repeated, as in the case of a couple that’s been together a long time, it builds a circuit that easily produces warm, fuzzy feelings of trust. Sex triggers a lot of oxytocin for a short period of time. During childbirth, both mother and child are flooded with the hormone. Nurturing any children, caring for adults, and friendships also cause oxytocin to be released.
Serotonin is stimulated by the status aspect of mating and bonding. For example, the pride you feel when part of a couple or when pairing with a person of high social stature would increase serotonin. This biological process has roots in evolution. Animals with higher status in their social groups had more reproductive success. In humans and animals, natural selection created a brain that seeks status by rewarding it with serotonin. Social dominance leads to more mating opportunities and more surviving offspring. While humans no longer need to have as many offspring as possible, your brain is still wired to seek the attention of an individual of higher social status.
Endorphins provide pain relief, feelings of euphoria, and are associated with the fight or flight response. They give you a surge of energy to help you power through any situation and helped our ancestors survive in emergencies. Endorphins are produced during physical exertion, sexual intercourse, and orgasm.
Pain actually causes endorphins to be released. Similar to morphine, they act as an analgesic and sedative, diminishing your perception of pain. If a loved one causes you pain, endorphins are released. This can make neural pathways, wiring you to expect the good feelings of endorphins whenever you experience romantic pain in the future. This may be one reason why people endure roller-coaster relationships.
Gender Differences in the Brain During Sex
Men’s and women’s brains are physically different and operate differently in ways that influence each gender’s sexual behavior.
- As most of us know, men are more responsive to sexual instincts. There’s a couple of physical reasons for this. The hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls many basic functions including mating behavior, is two times larger in men than women. Science has also shown that men’s brains have a lower level of activity overall. Lower activity is particularly seen in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates impulse control and decision-making. Less activity has also been noted in the limbic regions which govern in mood, emotions, and anxiety
- The sexual motivation pathways in men’s brains have more connections to the subcortical reward system than in women. This may drive them to seek reward more intensely and be partially responsible for their stronger sex drive. Men also have higher testosterone levels. Testosterone is the key male sex hormone that regulates fertility, muscle mass, fat distribution, and red blood cell production. Women make testosterone too. Just not anywhere near as much.
- Men make less oxytocin than women. Although, some studies found that men are more sensitive to oxytocin and show greater changes in behavior when they are exposed to the same amount of oxytocin as women.
- During sex and orgasm, the key hormone released in the female brain is oxytocin. On the other hand, men do get some oxytocin, but instead of getting a large dose of the bonding hormone, they receive a surge of dopamine. (Not liking to cuddle comes naturally. I found this article, Postcoital Neurochemistry, interesting.)
The Brain Benefits of Sex
Sex Grows Your Brain
One study found that regular sexual activity increased neurogenesis, the growth of new neurons in the brain, and improved cognitive function in multiple areas. Other research determined that sexual experience also promotes cell growth in the brain’s hippocampus, which is essential to memory.
Sex Gives You a High
The pleasure you feel during sex is largely due to dopamine. As discussed above, dopamine is associated with feelings of euphoria, bliss, motivation, and concentration,
Sex Can Have an Antidepressant Effect
During sex, your brain produces several chemicals and hormones that help you feel satisfied, relaxed, and in a better mood. One study noted that women who had sex without a condom had fewer depressive symptoms than women who used a condom. The researchers hypothesized that compounds in semen, including estrogen and prostaglandin, have antidepressant properties. This is good news for anyone who is in a committed relationship, but if you’re not monogamous, it’s not worth giving up condoms.
Sex Can Improve Memory
One study found that sex increases cell growth in the hippocampus in rodents. The hippocampus is a brain region crucial to long-term memory. The experiment discovered that, when compared with rats who were only allowed one one-night stand, rodents who engaged in “chronic” sexual activity grew more neurons in the hippocampus. The findings were repeated in a second experiment with mice. It isn’t known if more sex has the same effect in humans — but you can always operate on the premise that it does.
Sex Calms You Down
Science suggests sex can improve your mood and decrease anxiety by reducing stress signals in the brain and lowering blood pressure. It works conversely too. Sexual interaction and physical affection improve mood and reduce stress, and improved mood and reduced stress increase the likelihood of future sex and physical affection in a relationship. It’s a win/win!
Sex Helps You Fall Asleep
Sex can make it easier to fall asleep, and more sleep helps boost your sex drive. Another win/win. The sleepy effect is due to the hormones released. Additionally, having an orgasm releases another hormone, prolactin, which makes you relaxed and sleepy. Getting physical is more likely to induce sleep in men than women because the prefrontal cortex of a man’s brain slows down after ejaculation. When combined with the hormone surges, this can result in the well-known “rolling over and falling asleep” behavior.
Sex Makes You Smarter
In one study, researchers found that people who indulged in frequent, regular sexual activity scored higher on an array of mental tests.
- Their verbal fluency was better.
- Their ability to visually perceive objects was improved.
- They could judge the space between objects better.
Here’s an interesting and amusing Ted Talk: