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Why Sex is Good for Your Brain

Why Sex is Good for Your Brain: © ALFRED PASIEKA/Science Photo Library/Corbis

© ALFRED PASIEKA/Science Photo Library/Corbis

“Sexual healing baby, it’s good for me.”

Marvin Gaye was on to something when he first sang these lyrics more than 30 years ago.

Sex is indeed good for our health in many ways—and we now have the science to back it up. For one thing, it’s a decent form of exercise. In fact, research suggests that a 20-something man will burn 101 calories on average during a typical sexual encounter, whereas similarly-aged women will burn about 69.

That’s no excuse to cancel your gym membership, but it’s something—and those numbers can really add up if you’re getting it on with any regularity.

Beyond exercise, research has found that sex is also a great stress-reliever.

One additional and arguably even more important health benefit of sex is that it’s good for the brain. A series of studies published over the past few years suggests that sexual activity just might help to keep our brains in good shape for the long haul.

First, let’s consider a 2010 study of male rats that were either deprived of sex or not for a period of two weeks. Specifically, half of the rats were only able to have sex once over the course of the entire study, whereas the other half were allowed to do it every single day.

At the end of the study, scientists found that the most sexually active rats experienced the most neuron growth and generation—changes that are likely to help maintain and perhaps even improve brain functioning over time.

Incidentally, those rats that had daily sex also had lower levels of stress hormones in their systems, providing further support for the aforementioned “sexual healing” idea.

No parallel study yet exists on humans, but there is some evidence to suggest that sex is also good for the human brain.

For example, research has found that among people who have recently fallen in love, their blood tests reveal heightened levels of nerve growth factor. This is a protein that helps your nerve cells to grow and survive.

Levels of this protein were higher for lovebirds compared to single folks, as well as people who were in long-term relationships. To the extent that sex really is good for the brain, this pattern of results makes sense, given that sexual activity tends to be highest when we’re in the throes of passion, like we tend to be when we’ve recently fallen in love.

One additional piece of evidence supporting the idea that sex is good for the human brain comes from a brand new study finding that sexual activity among older adults is linked to maintaining better cognitive functioning later in life.

In this study, researchers examined how the sexual practices of 6,833 English adults aged 50-89 related to two measures of mental functioning: a number sequencing task (to measure executive functions like problem-solving) and a word recall task (to measure memory ability).

Engaging in any form of sexual activity over the past year was linked to better scores on the word recall test for both men and women. Additionally, for men (but not women), being sexually active was linked to better scores on the number sequencing task.

We can’t say exactly what accounts for the results in this study of older adults, though. Is it that sex is causing neuron generation or growth, as we might expect based on the rat and romantic love studies?

Or might it have something to do with how the continued release of neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin affect the brain?

We certainly still have more to learn in this area, but this set of studies suggests that sex might very well do the brain a lot of good, and that there may be important psychological benefits to maintaining an active sex life, regardless of age.

Not that you needed another excuse to have more sex.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.


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