Exactly why sex is so beneficial to our mental health
If we've learnt one thing over the past few years, it’s that self-care is of paramount importance to our wellbeing. We are more aware than ever of the ways to keep our mental health in check – from meditation and mindfulness to walks in nature. But there's one pleasurable activity which could help boost your mood without you even having to lift your head off the pillow – sex.
Medical research suggests sex is a great stress-reliever and mood-enhancer, as well as having many other health (and relationship) benefits. The only problem is, we’re not doing it enough...
In his research, David Spiegelhalter, professor of statistics at Cambridge University and author of Sex by Numbers, discovered a steady – but shocking – decline in sexual activity over recent decades. He noted a 40% drop in the frequency of sex between couples during the 10-year period from 1990 to 2020, though the subsequent lockdowns may have shaken up those figures.
Read more: Vanessa Feltz says it’s ok to fake an orgasm: ‘I’m not saying do it every time’
And it seems the amount of sex we're having dwindles further with age, with figures from YouGov revealing increasing numbers are giving up sex completely as they get older.
Almost a fifth of 40 to 44-year-olds polled say they don’t have sex at all, and by 74, this figure jumps to 57%.
But there are actually some really great health reasons to invest some time in your sex life...
Sex boosts serotonin levels
Sex is a sensory experience, which lights up different parts of our brain to release mood-boosting chemicals like serotonin. During foreplay, as our sexual desire fires up, so does the level of serotonin in our body which in turn reduces any feelings of depression, stress or anxiety. As well as helping us feel good, it has a post-coital benefit too.
One neuroscientific explanation is that increased sexual activity is linked to improved cognitive function. (Studies on rats demonstrate that daily sex over a two-week period increases neuronal density and reduces anxiety.)
Relationship psychotherapist, Charisse Cook says if you’re struggling to find time for sex or self-pleasure, try and feel as "erotically alive" as possible to help produce serotonin.
"I encourage my clients to explore – either solo or with their partners – the joys of massage, nudity, creative pursuits and projects, travel, titillating films and literature, and anything that can create and develop pleasure, indulgence and sensuality," she says.
Read more: Women and orgasms: The 11 different types of female climax – and how to achieve them
Sex releases endorphins
During sex your body releases feel-good hormones creating feelings of relaxation, as well as helping to stave off anxiety and depression.
"During intimacy endorphins produced by your pituitary gland and central nervous system act on the opiate receptors in your brain," explains pharmacist Abbas Kanani of chemistclick.co.uk. "The signal from these feel-good hormones activates joy and happiness."
As we reach midlife, it’s more important than ever to keep our hormones in check to aid life expectancy. Dr Martin Kinsella, a hormone expert from bioidhealth.com, says:"Hormones are crucial to our general health but they are also extremely important in relation to our mood and feelings. Having sex or even having a sexual connection with someone can also reduce the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline."
Read more: Midlife women are happiest with their sex lives, according to study
Great sex is bonding
It’s easy to let sex slip in a long-term relationship when faced with work pressures, family life and... Netflix. But boxset bingeing isn't going to strengthen your love life.
Read more: How to overcome intimacy anxiety – and have better sex
Alejandra Sarmiento, psychosexual and trauma therapist at The Soke says we should try to prioritise our passion for each other. "It’s not about the quantity of encounters, the emphasis should be more on the quality of the erotic connection," she explains.
"Eroticism makes us feel vibrant, alive and energised. In this way, sex can become a private language that you learn to speak fluently with your partner."
Sex therapist Stephen Snyder, the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship, advises in his book to think of sex like dancing: "There are the emotional benefits of dancing itself. But there’s also the benefit of having someone ask you to dance. The feeling of being wanted and enjoyed. That’s a huge ingredient for happiness."
Watch: Meet the couple who keep their relationship ‘spicy’ with an "intimacy menu"
Sex helps you sleep
Around 16 million of us in the UK suffer from sleep problems, with only a quarter of us managing five hours a night. The secret to dropping off naturally and getting your full eight hours? A bedtime cocktail of prolactin and oxytocin. When we orgasm we release a fizz of chemicals "which work as a natural sedation helping you sleep, which in turn gives you more energy throughout the day," says Kanani.
It’s also thought that women experience a rise in oestrogen levels during sex which has been shown to improve their Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycle. Whereas in men, they mentally switch off quicker after orgasm. Sounds dreamy.
Read more: 'Find the clitoris' challenge: Sexperts hit the streets to see if public know exact location
Sex can boost our self-esteem
According the University of Toronto Mississauga, which carried out three studies involving 30,000 participants, researchers found that sex and relationship satisfaction peaked at a frequency of once a week.
Less than once a week had little impact on wellbeing, and having sex ten times a week brought no additional benefits. So no need to overdo it…
Sarmiento says when we connect to the carefree enjoyment of sex, we feel happier within ourselves, and as a result, have better self-esteem. Research supports this as when we orgasm, we release neurochemicals in our brains which bust stress or low moods.
"When we are comfortable with our deepest self, we become better at communicating our dreams and desires, and we have a better chance of having our needs met," Sarmiento explains. "In turn, this makes us feel deserving, joyful and free. Sex is a direct avenue to fulfilment.”
Sex is a workout
When we exercise, we experience a dopamine hit which boosts our mood and happiness. Dr Kinsella says, "'Exercise' is any activity that requires physical effort and so sex can absolutely count as this. It reduces levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and stimulates the production of endorphins that naturally trigger a positive feeling.
"Research also suggests that regular sex (once or twice a week) helps to increase levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA) – antibodies that fight illness, meaning that it could encourage a stronger immune system."
In fact you get double the rewards if you combine exercise with sexercise. Research by the University of California found that men who took an hour of aerobic exercise four times a week, not only experienced an increase in sexual frequency, but also sexual satisfaction. What's not to love?