Surprising Ways Your Sex Life Can Impact Your Health

It's no secret that sex feels good. Not only is it the way we bring life into the world, but it's a form of pleasure that can help us connect with others and increase intimacy in our existing relationships (via Psychology Today). If you only thought that getting it on was good for one thing, the science behind sex might actually surprise you.

While feeling good "down there" might be the overall objective when having sex, there are a plethora of positive side effects sex can have on our general health and wellbeing. According to a study published in Sexual and Relationship Therapy, although there are benefits from going at it solo, sex with a partner is what tends to give you the biggest bang (so to speak) for your buck. Evidence from the study suggests that sex can help prevent prostate cancer in men, reduce menstrual cramping in women, and is an excellent overall mood enhancer. If that isn't enough to convince you to want to get it on, read on to discover more surprising benefits that sex can have on your health.

It boosts your immune system

Most people know about traditional immune boosting methods like taking in some vitamin C, getting enough sleep, and eating well (via WebMD), but you might be surprised to know that a good session between the sheets can help you fight off the common cold as well. A 2004 study published in Psychological Reports found that college students who engaged in sexual activity 1-2 times per week had higher levels of salivary immunoglobulin A (IgA) than their less sexually active peers. IgA are the antibodies in the immune system that act as the body's first line of defense. To sum it up succinctly: "Sexually active people take fewer sick days," Yvonne K. Fulbright, sexual health expert, explained to WebMD.

While it's still crucial to take care of yourself through a healthy diet, exercise, and getting your zzzs, sex can be the frosting on the proverbial immune booster cake.

It improves your sleep

Put down those sleeping pills and say goodbye to restless nights — after sex, of course. According to a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Public Health, Western countries aren't faring so well in the area of sleep. The overall trend is fewer hours of sleep, and an increase in insomnia and other sleep challenges. There is however, a silver lining: Data from the study suggests that sex with a partner before bed can lead to improved sleep quality. A large percentage of participants in the study responded that both their sleep quality and sleep onset were improved after achieving orgasm with a partner before bed. Orgasms prompt the release of oxytocin and prolactin, which are hormones known to improve quality of life, reduce stress, and improve sleep quality. For those who are going at it alone, not to worry — the study shows that masturbation also has a positive effect on sleep quality, albeit not as strong as when orgasm is achieved with a partner.

It can reduce your risk of heart disease

Chocolate, red wine ... and now sex can be added to the list of things we thought were bad for our heart health, but actually improve it (via Edward-Elmhurst Health). Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S., with coronary heart disease being the most common type (via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). According to a 2016 study published in The Journal for Health and Social Behavior, both sexually active men and women were found to have less incidences of cardiovascular related issues when they were sexually active with a partner. The study also found that for women, good quality sex with a partner increased cardiovascular health, and more specifically reduced hypertension. Furthermore, sex helps to balance estrogen and testosterone levels — and as Joseph J. Pinzone, CEO and medical director of Amai Wellness, told WebMD, "When either one of those is low you begin to get lots of problems, like osteoporosis and even heart disease."

It can improve your self esteem

Good news: There is now scientific evidence to support that slight ego boost you may be experiencing after a night of sex. One study published in 2014 monitored the diaries of college students engaging in regular sex to evaluate their psychological wellbeing (via Social Psychological and Personality Science). Data from the study suggests that students who were "sociosexually unrestricted," meaning they were more willing to engage in casual sex, reported greater wellbeing, which included more self-confidence. An earlier study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed the flipside is also true — meaning those who already reported having higher confidence also reported enjoying sex more. The study authors concluded that this parallel relationship between personal confidence and sexual satisfaction may exist because "[self-esteem] may enhance a young adult's ability to acknowledge, communicate about, and negotiate for his or her sexual preferences." Furthermore, they point out that higher self-esteem can reduce your susceptibility to peer pressure, which can help you say no when you need to say no, and also improve your sexual communication, which can lead to better and safer sex. So whether sex leads to improved self-esteem, or improved-self esteem leads to you having better sex, the positive link between the two is inextricably clear.

It can help you relieve stress

While this one might seem a little obvious, you may not have actually stopped to consider the science behind just why you feel so much less stressed after a good romp. In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, it was found that sex relieved long-term and daily stress for both men and women by helping them both regulate their emotions.

Furthermore, as Laura Berman, an assistant clinical professor of ob-gyn and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, explains to Women's Health, sex produces a variety of hormones including oxytocin and endorphins, which both activate the centers of our brains that allow us to experience pleasure, and can lead to improved intimacy, more relaxation, and reduced incidences of anxiety and depression. Luckily, sex without an orgasm can also lead to reduced stress, so don't worry if you don't reach the big O — you'll still reap the stress-busting benefits sans climax.

It's great cardiovascular exercise

If you missed your daily cardio routine, not to worry — you can pencil in some sex with your partner to make up for it. While having sex may not be the same as running a marathon, it does burn calories and can count toward your daily cardio. The average sex session is approximately 30 mins, and according to a 2013 study published in PLOS One, men burn an average of about 101 calories per 30 minutes of sex, and women burn an average of 69, making it a moderate-intensity workout.

If you're feeling ... frisky, and are also a little type-A about making sure you've met your quota for calories burned in a day, there is a special tool just for you. There is a sex workout calculator available online that uses metabolic equivalent scores to calculate the calories burned per minute of sex in various positions (via Dr Felix and Healthline). While the calculator may not get your calories burned down to a T, it may still be a fun tool to use with a partner to explore which positions generate the most sweat.

It may reduce the risk of prostate cancer

Good news, men. There have been several new developments in the area of cancer research that suggest regular ejaculation — whether through intercourse, masturbation, or even wet dreams — can actually decrease your risk of prostate cancer. The 2016 study published in European Urology tracked 32,000 men from 1992 to 2010. The men provided information about how often they ejaculated, and researchers measured their Prostate Specific Antigens and conducted prostate biopsies. In the end, researchers discovered a positive correlation between frequent ejaculation — meaning least 21 times a month — and a 20% lower risk for prostate cancer.

While the science isn't exactly clear as to why ejaculation lowers men's risk for prostate cancer, according to WebMD, one theory is that the act assists in releasing "harmful chemicals that might build up in semen." The data is relatively new, so scientists are still researching more specifics about the connection. Although masturbation and intercourse both work to help reduce the risk of prostate cancer, questions still remain about which might be more effective. WebMD states that the chemical content of semen from sex is higher than from masturbation, so that may affect the outcome. Either way, the latest research has been promising, and since ejaculating is safe and pleasurable, there is certainly no harm in trying.

It lowers your blood pressure

There is more promising research in the area of sex for those worried about hypertension. A 2006 study published in Biological Psychology followed 24 women and 22 men for two weeks, and discovered that those who had penile-vaginal intercourse had improved stress response and less systolic blood pressure reactivity than those who didn't. Furthermore, a 2016 study that showed a link between sex and improved heart health also evaluated blood pressure, and proved that there was a positive link between regular sex and a decrease in blood pressure, specifically for older women (via Journal of Health and Social Behavior).

Unfortunately, there is another correlation between blood pressure and sex that may not be so positive. For those who experience high blood pressure and for those who are taking blood pressure medication, there might be a negative effect on your ability to perform sexually. According to the Mayo Clinic, high blood pressure can damage the lining of blood vessels and limit blood flow. For men, this means a decrease in blood flow to the penis, which can lead to erectile dysfunction. For women, high blood pressure can also limit the flow of blood to the genitals and lead to vaginal dryness and low libido. Blood pressure medication can also negatively impact libido, so if you need to take medication for high blood pressure, be sure to speak to your doctor about options that have fewer negative side effects.

It boosts your mood

This might seem like another obvious one, but in case you were curious, there is a lot of science behind this positive side effect of sex as well. During sex, a cocktail of feel-good chemicals is released from our brains, one of which is oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the "love drug" (via Psychology Today) and according to a 2011 study published by the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, is also a key compound that supports our ability to build trust and form secure attachments. Additionally, as clinical psychologist Daniel Sher told Insider, "In women, oxytocin tends to continue to be released after orgasm, which may explain the motivation for post-coital cuddles."

Oxytocin is not alone in the brain's quest to boost your mood: It has companions in the form of dopamine and serotonin, which also work overtime during sex to make you happy. Cognitive physiologist Kayt Sukel also spoke to Insider about the mood-boosting chemicals: "Some refer to dopamine as a 'pleasure' chemical –- though research has shown it offers us much more than just a good time. It's really more of a learning chemical, helping to take notice of rewards like food and sex, and figure out how to get more of them."

It relieves pain

No need to pop an Advil to get rid of that headache now that you've got sex in your back pocket. Perhaps one of the more surprising benefits of some one-on-one time with your partner is that it can actually serve as a pain reliever. In a 2013 study published in Cephalalgia, researchers discovered that subjects who had sex during a migraine attack reported a 60% improvement of their symptoms, while 70% reported substantial to total relief. For those who experience cluster headaches, 37% reported an improvement, while 91% reported moderate to complete relief.

There is, of course, science to back up this phenomenon. One of the primary reasons for the painkilling effect of sex is endorphins. When we have sex, endorphins are released. According to a 2010 study published in the Hawai'i Medical Journal, endorphins are neuropeptides that help the body with pain management — indeed, most opioids actually mimic the body's natural endorphins to help relieve pain. Given this, sexual activity may be a good way to safely manage pain, though always be sure to consult your doctor if you are experiencing chronic and unmanageable pain for the best guidance.

It can strengthen your muscles

Piggybacking on the theme of sex as a great cardio workout, it's also a great (and fun) way to strengthen and tone your muscles. There are a lot of different positions to try that focus on specific muscle groups, and Shape spoke to several experts on the matter to get their take. Stacy Berman, a certified fitness trainer and founder of Stacy's Boot Camp explains: "It depends on how enthusiastic you are about it, but missionary can be great for the core muscles. If your partner is thrusting toward you, you want to have an equal and opposite thrust back, and that requires a lot of core strength. It actually will start burning."

Berman also suggests doggy style for those who want both a core and upper arm workout, and says "if the receiving partner has their hands on a wall in front of them and sort of uses their upper body to help thrust, that would be a good shoulder and upper body workout." If you're looking for a more intense challenge, try the "bridge" sex position, in which the partner who is receiving takes a stance in bridge pose. Patti Britton, who authored The Art of Sex Coaching and is the former president of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists tells Shape: "This is a highly advanced sex position for fitness."

It can increase your lifespan

Sex can bring so many benefits for your health — cardiovascular improvement, increased cardio and muscle fitness, and pain and stress reduction among others (via WebMD) — that it makes sense all of these benefits coalesce to form general improvements in quality of life and longevity. According to one study that surveyed 918 men ages 45-59, men who reported "high orgasmic frequency" experienced a 50% decrease in mortality risk than those who reported low orgasmic frequency (via BMJ). An earlier study conducted by Swedish researchers that followed 392 men and women from the age of 70 to 75 also concluded that there was a connection between death and "early cessation of sexual intercourse."

More recently, a study published by the Association for Psychological Science says that having a happy spouse can also contribute to longevity. Sex has been shown to increase intimacy and connection in partnerships, as well as boost mood — which in short means that more sex can lead to a happier, more intimately connected partnership (via Psychology Today). The study found that "greater partner life satisfaction at the beginning of the study was associated with lower participant mortality risk."

It can reduce menstrual cramps in women

Women: if you've vetoed the idea of sex on your period before, you might want to think again. While there are some potential downsides (primarily messiness), there are many more upsides to having sex during menstruation, including a reduction in cramps. The primary reason for the pain reduction circles back to the brain releasing endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, as mentioned earlier. Chief science officer at Flo Health, Dr. Anna Klepchukova spoke to Bustle and explained: "While taking medication can help alleviate menstrual cramps, having an orgasm is a more natural way to relieve pain from menstruation. This happens because endorphins, dopamine and serotonin are released during sex and can change pain sensitivity, providing some relief from cramping." The upside about this method is that it works both with and without a partner. Orgasm is all that's needed to relieve pain here, so if you are worried about the mess, you can fly solo.

It can improve your hair, skin, and nails

So there really is some truth behind the whole post-orgasm "glow" that people talk about after all. Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joel Schlessinger spoke to Women's Health about how sex can help boost your skin's radiance: "[The] boost in circulation is what brightens the complexion and gives your skin that glow. It also increases your heart rate, which gets the blood flowing." He adds, "The physical activity also triggers the human growth hormone, which makes skin look more elastic."

Hair and nails are not exempt from the benefits of a good sex session. Schlessinger continues: "Research has shown that sex improves the body's ability to absorb and metabolize nutrients effectively. An increase in those essential vitamins and minerals means healthier hair and stronger nails in the long run." Another expert, Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist, told Women's Health that there is also evidence that estrogen produced from orgasm can also contribute to collagen production, which improves skin elasticity. And sex contributes to reduced stress and improved sleep, which are two factors that also contribute to a natural, lit-from-within glow.