How Sex Impacts Your Brain

A new study explains how orgasms affect the brain beyond pleasure.

There have been multiple studies over the last few years examining the effects of sex on the body. Outside of improving mood, reducing stress, and impacting one's overall health, some studies have even found that sex can affect the amount we eat, how well the heart functions, and protect against the risk of high blood pressure. In hindsight, a fact that applies to almost everyone is that sexual stimulation and satisfaction increases the activity of brain networks related to pain and emotional health, as well as the reward system. This led researchers to compare sex to other stimulants that provide a ‘high,’ such as drugs and alcohol, and to gain insight into how sex affects the brain.

Researchers at the University of Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands conducted a study in 2005 using 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 found that the insula - a part of the brain that has been tied to processing emotions and sensations – and the secondary somatosensory cortex, which plays a role in encoding sensations of pain, experienced an increase in blood flow during the stimulation of the erect penis. In contrast, the amygdala – known to be tied to the development of anxiety disorders – demonstrated a decrease in blood flow during the stimulation. The study states, “Our results correspond with reports of cerebellar activation during heroin rush, sexual arousal, listening to pleasurable music, and monetary reward.”

In a study of the female orgasm, scientists from Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey analyzed the brain activity of 10 female participants as they reached the peak of their pleasure. The team found that the prefrontal cortex, the orbitofrontal cortex, the insula the cingulate gyrus, and the cerebellum were significantly activated during orgasm, which are all regions in the brain involved in the processing of emotions and sensations. A further study even found that the rhythmic and pleasurable stimulation puts the brain in a trance-like state. The author of the study, Adam Safron, compares the female orgasm to dancing or listening to music and states, “Music and dance may be the only things that come close to sexual interaction in their power to entrain neural rhythms and produce sensory absorption.” 

In essence, sex can impact our mood in various ways and having sex releases a lot of hormones linked to emotion. The reasoning behind why sex relieves stress is due to a region in the brain called the hypothalamus, which dictates the release of oxytocin. When the levels of the hormone oxytocin are increased, it makes us feel more relaxed and can offset the effects of cortisol, which is a hormone linked to an increased state of stress. Oxytocin can also lessen our sense of pain and it has been found to relieve headaches. In contrast, a small segment of the population has reported an instant down rather than instant high after sex, which is actually a condition known as “postcoital dysphoria.” To look into this complaint, researchers interviewed 222 female university students and found that 32.9 percent had experienced negative moods after engaging in sex. The causes remain unclear and the team noted that the condition could be due to biological predisposition or past traumatic events. Regardless of your mood outcome, the study found that there’s more than just pleasurable sensations and emotional connection from sex and that there’s actually an altered state of consciousness.

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