Most of us know that sexual activity can be a gateway to deep pleasure, intimacy, and in some cases, shared ecstasy. But regular safe and loving sexual activity can also help foster peak mental and physical health, while helping calm your soul.
“Great sex is one of the most powerful forces in life, a healing force, as well as a physical vehicle for love, and yet for far too many, it’s a birthright that’s never claimed,” says Lana Holstein, M.D., who led workshops with her husband David Taylor, M.D., on human sexuality at Miraval Life in Balance in Catalina, Arizona. Holstein, the author of How to Have Magnificent Sex (Harmony Books, 2000), adds, “Great sex is often a rarity even for couples who are in love; I’m interested in making it a repeatable reality.” Toward that end, we consulted physicians, sex educators, and fitness experts on the major health benefits of sexual expression. They gave us some news that we all can surely use.
1. Regular orgasms promote a healthy heart. Medical studies strongly suggest that the more frequently women experience orgasm, whether through partner or individual sex, the better their cardiovascular health.
In fact, “Some studies indicate that failure to reach orgasm may negatively affect a woman’s cardiovascular health,” says board-certified cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, M.D. Sinatra, the founder and medical director of the New England Heart & Longevity Center in Manchester, Connecticut, specializes in the mind-body nature of heart disease and how sexuality can affect heart health.
For example, Sinatra cites an investigation published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine that surveyed 200 hospitalized women. A group of 100 women with varied diagnoses was compared with a group of 100 women who had experienced a heart attack. Among the women hospitalized for other illnesses, 24 percent reported that they were dissatisfied with sex. The heart attack suffers, however, fared much worse. These participants reported a 65 percent occurrence of frigidity and dissatisfaction with sexual intimacy. As Sinatra writes in his book Heartbreak and Heart Disease (IBS Books Stocked, 1999), “Although sexuality can have different connotations with respect to love, intimacy, and physical expression, the fact remains that sexual satisfaction is highly conducive to the health of the heart.”
2. Sexual activity releases endorphins, feel-good hormones that help reduce stress levels. “Masturbation to orgasm or sex with a partner can bring deep bliss to the mind/body with the release of endorphins morphine-like chemicals that are natural painkillers and stress reducers,” says New York-based author and sex educator Betty Dodson, Ph.D. (www.bettydodson.com).
Dodson, the author of Orgasms For Two: The Joy of Partnersex (Harmony, 2002), adds that, “Endorphin release helps activate the relaxation response, the medically confirmed condition during which blood pressure drops, heart rate and brain waves slow down, and immune function is enhanced.” Fun fact: Studies in hamsters have found that blood endorphin levels increase by about 200 percent from the beginning to the end of the sex act. It is widely assumed that humans experience a similarly intense surge at the ultimate moment.
3. A fulfilling relationship with a sexual partner may make you happier than if you have few or no sexual partners. “Some research studies have shown that the most physically and emotionally satisfied sexual partners are married couples,” says Dodson. Furthermore, married women have reported a much higher frequency of orgasm than women who were single.
4. Orgasms are fabulous, but then again, everything’s relative. As Westlake Village, California, Ob-Gyn Sharon Norling, M.D., puts it: “Some women want and enjoy an orgasm more than others; it’s a personal thing. Optimal health means physical, mental, and emotional.” In other words, some women may feel perfectly happy with relatively fewer orgasms in their lives than others.
5. Sexual intimacy produces anti-aging benefits. “There have been studies demonstrating that a healthy sexual life within a committed relationship can be correlated with longevity,” says Tucson, Arizona-based anti-aging specialist Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., (www.drdharma.com), author of Brain Longevity (Warner Books Inc., 1997), Meditation as Medicine (Atria, 2001), and The Pain Cure (Warner Books, 1999).
“A Russian gerontologist examined 15,000 individuals over the age of 80 in provinces of the former Soviet Union,” Khalsa continues. “He found four main causes for longevity. Intimate relationships featuring frequent and loving sexual expression were perhaps the most compelling cause. People who lived the longest also reported working outside and staying physically active every day. They also ate a diet rich in whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables.”
6. Sexual activity tones a major erogenous zone. Regular sexual activity is beneficial to your body and sex life because, “It helps tone vaginal walls and enhance their elasticity,” says Norling. Age can be a factor in vaginal wall flexibility. “Menopausal women tend to have decreased estrogen if they’re not on hormones, which means that the vaginal walls decrease in elasticity,” Norling explains.
7. Regular sexual activity enhances a woman’s sexual response. According to Norling, “Regular sexual relations increase vaginal blood flow, which is good because this in turn can help promote lubrication and sexual response.”
8. Practicing simple muscular contractions during lovemaking can enhance the mechanical aspects of your sexual anatomy and function, while also pleasuring your partner. The pubococcygeus muscle, usually referred to as the PC or Kegel muscle, plays a leading role in a woman’s sexual pleasure, as a strong PC can help postpone or intensify orgasm. “The PC is located on the pelvic floor between the anus and the genitals,” says Dodson, who has been teaching women about female anatomy and sexuality for thirty years. “The PC muscle is the key muscle that contracts during female orgasm. You can engage and contract your PC muscle by stopping the flow of urine in mid-stream as you urinate.”
Many women’s sex lives stand to benefit from Kegels as pregnancy and childbirth weaken the pelvic floor muscles and can cause urinary stress incontinence. Named after Dr. Arnold Kegel, who developed them to help strengthen the pelvic floor and alleviate urinary stress incontinence, Kegel exercises strengthen the PC muscle, which promotes optimal sexual function and fulfillment.
Some physicians say that when done properly, Kegel-type exercises are 90 percent effective in alleviating mild urinary stress incontinence. Dodson recommends that every woman start practicing Kegel exercises. (Try contracting the muscle as you read this.) Coordinate Kegel exercises with deep abdominal breathing by contracting the PC muscle with each inhalation. Start with 10 to 15 contractions per day. Hold each breath for four seconds then release. Slowly work your way up to 25.
You can do Kegels when you’re commuting, cleaning the house, while waiting in line, talking on the phone, or best of all, during lovemaking.
Prolonged Kegel or PC contractions can slow down and even stop the prolonged, throbbing contractions that accompany ejaculation. Kegels help prevent ejaculation and help a man maintain erection, helping create a more powerful orgasm.
It’s important to remember that sexual fulfillment and happiness in life are highly individualized affairs. As Norling explains, “Some women are comfortable with masturbation, and others never do it at all, but believe they have a good sex life.” In other words, what turns you on is entirely up to you. Apart from being gentle and honest with your partner and using condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (or other forms of contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancy), there are very few rules dictating sexual expression. So, as Dodson encourages, “Do what you like.”
Spa Programs for Sexual Well-Being:
A growing body of research shows that optimal health and longevity are intimately linked to a satisfying sex life. Certain spa programs feature physicians who are also sexuality experts; these health care professionals lead retreats on the mind/body health benefits of sexuality.
Miraval Life in Balance
This resort and spa features sexuality retreats that encourage couples to explore love as a healing energy and sexuality as a healing activity. Workshops are taught by the husband-and-wife team of Drs. Lana Holstein and David Taylor, creators of “Partners, Pleasure and Passion,” the “Awakening Aphrodite” women’s sexuality retreat and “Cancer, Sex and Intimacy: Using the Cancer Experience to Enhance Lovemaking.”
Canyon Ranch Tucson and Lenox
Both Canyon Ranch locations offer sexuality programs throughout the year. Workshops, taught by health care professionals, explore such topics as healthy sensuality and the health benefits of sex.