Having sex can flavor our nights, and days, with sweet pleasure and excitement, relieving stress and worry. And, of course, sex has been key to ensuring that the human race lives on. In this article, we ask, “How does sex impact what happens in the brain?”
By Maria Cohut
Fact checked by Jasmin Collier
Sexual intercourse is known to impact the way in which the rest of our body functions. Recent studies have shown that it can have an effect on how much we eat, and how well the heart functions.
Sex has been cited as an effective method of burning calories, with scientists noting that appetite is reduced in the aftermath.
A study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in 2016 found that women who have satisfying sex later in life might be better protected.
Many of the effects of sex on the body are actually tied to the way in which this pastime influences brain activity and the release of hormones in the central nervous system.
Here, we explain what happens in the brain when we are sexually stimulated, and we look at how this activity can lead to changes in mood, metabolism, and the perception of pain.
Brain activity and sexual stimulation
For both men and women, sexual stimulation and satisfaction have been demonstrated to increase the activity of brain networks related to pain and emotional states, as well as to the reward system.
This led some researchers to liken sex to other stimulants from which we expect an instant “high,” such as drugs and alcohol.
A 2005 study by researchers at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands used positron emission tomography scans to monitor the cerebral blood flow of male participants. While their genitals were being stimulated by their female partners.
The scans demonstrated that stimulating the erect penis increased blood flow in the posterior insula. The secondary somatosensory cortex in the right hemisphere of the brain, while decreasing it in the right amygdala.
The insula is a part of the brain that has been tied to processing emotions, as well as to sensations of pain and warmth. Similarly, the secondary somatosensory cortex is thought to play an important role in encoding sensations of pain.
An older study from the same university — which focused on brain regions that were activated at the time of ejaculation. Found that there was an increase in blood flow to the cerebellum, which also plays a key role in the processing of emotions.
The researchers liken the activation of the cerebellum during ejaculation to the pleasure rush caused by other activities that stimulate the brain’s reward system.
The brain and the female orgasm
In a study of the female orgasm that was conducted last year, scientists from Rutgers University in Newark, NJ, monitored the brain activity of 10 female participants as they achieved the peak of their pleasure. Either by self-stimulation or by being stimulated by their partners.
These brain regions are variously involved in the processing of emotions and sensations of pain. As well as in the regulation of some metabolic processes and decision-making.
Sex and hormonal activity
So what does this all mean? In essence, it means that sex can impact our mood — normally for the better, but sometimes for the worse.
Having sex has repeatedly been associated with improved moods and psychological, as well as physiological, relaxation.
The hypothalamus dictates the release of a hormone called oxytocin.
Higher levels of oxytocin can make us feel more relaxed. As studies have noted that it can offset the effects of cortisol, the hormone linked with an increased state of stress.
Not only does oxytocin make us calmer, but it also dampens our sense of pain. A study from 2013 found that this hormone could relieve headaches in individuals living with them as a chronic condition.
Can sex also make us feel down?
The answer to that, unfortunately, is “yes.”. While sex is generally hailed as a great natural remedy for the blues. A small segment of the population actually report an instant down rather than an instant high after engaging in this activity.
One study conducted in 2010 interviewed 222 female university students to better understand its effects.
Of these participants, 32.9 percent said that they had experienced negative moods after sex.
The team noted that a lifelong prevalence of this condition could be down to past traumatic events. In most cases, however, its causes remained unclear and a biological predisposition could not be eliminated.
“This draws attention to the unique nature of [postcoital dysphoria], where the melancholy is limited only to the period following sexual intercourse and the individual cannot explain why the dysphoria occurs,” the authors write.
Sex may lead to better sleep
Studies have shown that sexual intercourse can also improve sleep. After an orgasm, the body also releases higher levels of a hormone called prolactin, which is known to play a key role in sleep.
In the case of men, ejaculation has been found to reduce activity in the prefrontal cortex.
Researchers say that sex may lead to better cognitive functioning in older age. Pprotecting people from memory loss and other cognitive impairments. Studies have shown that “older men who are sexually active […] have increased levels of general cognitive function.”
For women, being sexually active later in life appears to sustain memory recall, specifically. These effects may be due to the action of hormones such as testosterone and oxytocin, which are influenced by intercourse.