Orgasms: What are the mental health benefits?
With benefits including anxiety-fighting hormones, and a host of physical perks, could regular orgasms transform wellness as we know it?
Orgasms are good for us. Like, really good for us. Physical benefits, psychological benefits, and a whole host of social ones; the evidence is overwhelmingly telling us that it’s something we should invest some time in.
When I attended a recent Ann Summers event in London, launching their new Elation range, with a focus on the mental health and wellness benefits of orgasms, masturbation and sexual health, I was struck, not by anything “vulgar”, but the naturalness of sexual wellbeing.
At the event, I met Lucy Beresford, host of LBC radio’s Relationships and Sex show, This Morning agony aunt, and all-round sex-positive woman. With a background in psychotherapy and counselling, for Lucy sex, orgasms and mental health are all connected.
“For some individuals, there can be a huge link,” says Lucy. “Feeling sexually confident and relaxed about intimacy can lead to wider confidence in life.”
It seems that few things possess the power to transform both our mental and physical health the way that orgasms do. And yet, history shows that they haven’t always been a welcome part of our lives and attitudes. But times are a-changin’. Talking about sex is OK, masturbation is OK, and regular orgasms can have the power to transform our wellness. Here’s how they do it:
With a partner
When it comes to having orgasms with a partner, there’s some disparity between the genders. On average, men report having an orgasm 85.1% of the time, no matter what their sexual orientation, but hetrosexual women report orgasms only 62.9% of the time, with that number slightly higher for lesbian women at 74.7%.
Of course, the goal of every sexual interaction doesn’t have to be an orgasm, and people choose to have sex for a whole host of reasons. In fact, back in 2007, two researchers from the University of Texas published a study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, which found a total of 237 different motivations that could be categorised into: physical reasons, goal-based reasons, emotional reasons, and insecurity-based reasons.
“Sex with a partner means that open, vulnerable part of you is being exposed to someone else. To their needs, desires but also hang-ups and prejudices,” says Lucy. “And while there are certain emotional risks with doing this, when it’s right, the pay-off can be fantastic.”
And the value of an orgasm with a partner cannot be underestimated.
Communication is the cornerstone to a successful relationship, and orgasming with a partner has been shown to greatly increase our ability to bond with each other. A 2014 study into “pillow talk”, a colloquial term to describe the usually “deep” conversations had after sex, published in the Journal of Communication Monographs, showed that couples who orgasmed during sexual activity were more open with each other afterwards, and were more likely to talk about their emotions and disclose “information of greater magnitude”.
Ancient teachings and cultural taboos have come together throughout history to project masturbation as a shameful thing. But this is changing. We’re talking about it more in the media and our personal relationships, and a 2017 study by Ganesan P Adaikan in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, found that feelings of guilt amongst women who masturbate are decreasing, replaced by a “positive relationship and feelings towards their bodies”.
“Masturbation boosts your sexual confidence,” says Lucy. “It can provide a reliable source of orgasms, and the hormone released during those orgasms means masturbation creates relaxation and pleasure.”
Generally speaking, we’re much more open about talking about masturbation in men, and Lucy has some ideas as to why: “The main difference is that the part of the body men use for masturbation is clearly visible, whereas for women, only part of the clitoris is visible and nothing of the vagina. Over time (by which I mean centuries) I believe this has set up an idea that playing with your penis is an ‘open’ activity, whereas stimulating your clitoris, vulva, labia or vagina is somehow ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’.”
With no risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, masturbation is the safest way to explore your sexuality and, as long as it doesn’t start negatively affecting the rest of your life or relationships, it’s a healthy way to get to know your body.
“I would never say sex or masturbation is better for you than the other,” adds Lucy. “It’s just lovely that with masturbation, you possess a reliable source of pleasure for the rest of your life!”
When a person has an orgasm their body is flooded with the hormone, oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that leaves us feeling warm and fuzzy, often referred to as the “afterglow”. But this isn’t just a fleeting feeling. Last year, researchers at Florida State University studied 214 newlywed couples and found the “afterglow” feelings of satisfaction and stimulation could last for up to 48 hours.
Orgasms can also raise testosterone levels in both men and women, increasing our sex-drive and creating a self-satisfying cycle of feel-good hormones where the endorphins in our bodies can send us into deeply relaxed states, soothing our stresses and anxieties.
When it comes to the effect of orgasms on our physical health, it seems that there are few things that can’t be boosted. Heart disease, diabetes, migraines, stomach ulcers, coughs and colds, and even ageing are thought to be prevented or tackled by regular orgasms.
But we also feel healthier too. A study published in New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 found that of the 3,000 participants, those who were having sex regularly rated their general health higher than those who weren’t.
From the mental to the physical, from our relationships with others to the relationship with ourselves, it seems there are few things that can’t be enhanced with good sexual wellbeing. That isn’t to say that the big ‘O’ can solve all of life’s problems, or that those who choose celibacy can’t have equally fulfilling lives. But the perks are ripe and there for the picking and, as we continue to bring down sexual taboos, what’s to stop you taking a bite?
Lucy Beresford is a qualified psychotherapist (UKCP) and host of LBC radio’s Relationships & Sex phone-in show. Visit lucyberesford.co.uk