Date: Sat 11 Oct 2003 - 00:57:53 GMT
Is Sex Necessary?
Fans of abstinence had better be sitting down. "Saving yourself"
before the big game, the big business deal, the big hoedown or the
big bakeoff may indeed confer some moral benefit. But
corporeally it does absolutely zip. There's no evidence it sharpens
your competitive edge. The best that modern science can say for
sexual abstinence is that it's harmless when practiced in
moderation. Having regular and enthusiastic sex, by contrast,
confers a host of measurable physiological advantages, be you
male or female. (This assumes that you are engaging in sex
without contracting a sexually transmitted disease.)
In one of the most credible studies correlating overall health with
sexual frequency, Queens University in Belfast tracked the
mortality of about 1,000 middle-aged men over the course of a
decade. The study was designed to compare persons of
comparable circumstances, age and health. Its findings, published
in 1997 in the British Medical Journal, were that men who
reported the highest frequency of orgasm enjoyed a death rate half
that of the laggards. Other studies (some rigorous, some less so)
purport to show that having sex even a few times a week has an
associative or causal relationship with the following:
- Improved sense of smell: After sex, production of the hormone
prolactin surges. This in turn causes stem cells in the brain to
develop new neurons in the brain's olfactory bulb, its smell center.
- Reduced risk of heart disease: In a 2001 follow-on to the
Queens University study mentioned above, researchers focused on
cardiovascular health. Their finding? That by having sex three or
more times a week, men reduced their risk of heart attack or
stroke by half. In reporting these results, the co-author of the
study, Shah Ebrahim, Ph.D., displayed the well-loved British gift
for understatement: "The relationship found between frequency of
sexual intercourse and mortality is of considerable public
- Weight loss, overall fitness: Sex, if nothing else, is exercise. A
vigorous bout burns some 200 calories--about the same as running
15 minutes on a treadmill or playing a spirited game of squash.
The pulse rate, in a person aroused, rises from about 70 beats per
minute to 150, the same as that of an athlete putting forth
maximum effort. British researchers have determined that the
equivalent of six Big Macs can be worked off by having sex three
times a week for a year. Muscular contractions during intercourse
work the pelvis, thighs, buttocks, arms, neck and thorax. Sex also
boosts production of testosterone, which leads to stronger bones
and muscles. Men's Health magazine has gone so far as to call the
bed the single greatest piece of exercise equipment ever invented.
- Reduced depression: Such was the implication of a 2002 study
of 293 women. American psychologist Gordon Gallup reported
that sexually active participants whose male partners did not use
condoms were less subject to depression than those whose
partners did. One theory of causality: Prostoglandin, a hormone
found only in semen, may be absorbed in the female genital tract,
thus modulating female hormones.
- Pain-relief: Immediately before orgasm, levels of the hormone
oxytocin surge to five times their normal level. This in turn
releases endorphins, which alleviate the pain of everything from
headache to arthritis to even migraine. In women, sex also
prompts production of estrogen, which can reduce the pain of
- Less-frequent colds and flu: Wilkes University in Pennsylvania
says individuals who have sex once or twice a week show 30%
higher levels of an antibody called immunoglobulin A, which is
known to boost the immune system.
- Better bladder control: Heard of Kegel exercises? You do
them, whether you know it or not, every time you stem your flow
of urine. The same set of muscles is worked during sex.
- Better teeth: Seminal plasma contains zinc, calcium and other
minerals shown to retard tooth decay. Since this is a family Web
site, we will omit discussion of the mineral delivery system.
Suffice it to say that it could be a far richer, more complex and
more satisfying experience than squeezing a tube of Crest--even
Tartar Control Crest. Researchers have noted, parenthetically, that
sexual etiquette usually demands the brushing of one's teeth
before and/or after intimacy, which, by itself, would help promote
better oral hygiene.
- A happier prostate? Some urologists believe they see a
relationship between infrequency of ejaculation and cancer of the
prostate. The causal argument goes like this: To produce seminal
fluid, the prostate and the seminal vesicles take such substances
from the blood as zinc, citric acid and potassium, then concentrate
them up to 600 times. Any carcinogens present in the blood
likewise would be concentrated. Rather than have concentrated
carcinogens hanging around causing trouble, it's better to evict
them. Regular old sex could do the job. But if the flushing of the
prostate were your only objective, masturbation might be a better
way to go, especially for the non-monogamous male. Having sex
with multiple partners can, all by itself, raise a man's risk of
cancer by up to 40%. That's because he runs an increased risk of
contracting sexual infections. So, if you want the all the purported
benefits of flushing with none of the attendant risk, go digital. A
study recently published by the British Journal of Urology
International asserts that men in their 20s can reduce by a third
their chance of getting prostate cancer by ejaculating more than
five times a week.
While possession of a robust appetite for sex--and the physical
ability to gratify it--may not always be the cynosure of perfect
health, a reluctance to engage can be a sign that something is
seriously on the fritz, especially where the culprit is an infirm
Dr. J. Francois Eid, a urologist with Weill Medical College of
Cornell University and New York Presbyterian Hospital, observes
that erectile dysfunction is extension of vascular system. A
lethargic member may be telling you that you have diseased blood
vessels elsewhere in your body. "It could be a first sign of
hypertension or diabetes or increased cholesterol levels. It's a red
flag that you should see your doctor." Treatment and exercise,
says Dr. Eid, can have things looking up again: "Men who
exercise and have a good heart and low heart rate, and who are
cardio-fit, have firmer erections. There very definitely is a
But is there such a thing as too much sex?
The answer, in purely physiological terms, is this: If you're
female, probably not. If you're male? You betcha.
Dr. Claire Bailey of the University of Bristol says there is little or
no risk of a woman's overdosing on sex. In fact, she says, regular
sessions can not only firm a woman's tummy and buttocks but also
improve her posture.
Dr. George Winch Jr., an obstetrician/gynecologist in Elko,
Nev., concurs. If a woman is pre-menopausal and otherwise
healthy, says Dr. Winch, her having an extraordinary amount of
intercourse ought not to pose a problem. "I don't think women can
have too much intercourse," he says, "so long as no sexually
transmitted disease is introduced and there's not an inadvertent
pregnancy. Sometimes you can have a lubrication problem. If you
have that, there can be vaginal excoriation--vaginal scrape."
Women who abstain from sex run some risks. In postmenopausal
women, these include vaginal atrophy. Dr. Winch has a middle-
aged patient of whom he says: "She hasn't had intercourse in three
years. Just isn't interested. The opening of her vagina is narrowing
from disuse. It's a condition that can lead to dysparenia, or pain
associated with intercourse. I told her, 'Look, you'd better buy a
vibrator or you're going to lose function there.'"
As for men, urologist Eid says it's definitely possible to get too
much of a good thing, now that drugs such as Viagra and Levitra
have given men far more staying power than may actually be good
The penis, says Eid, is wonderfully resilient. But everything has
its limits. Penile tissues, if given too roistering or prolonged a
pummeling, can sustain damage. In cases you'd just as soon not
hear about, permanent damage.
"Yes," says Dr. Eid, "It is possible for a young man who is very
forceful and who likes rough sex, to damage his erectile tissue."
The drugs increase rigidity; moreover, they make it possible for a
man to have second and third orgasms without having to wait out
"I see it in pro football players," says Eid. "They use Viagra
because they're so sexually active. What they demand of their
body is unreasonable. It's part of playing football: you play
through the pain." This type of guy doesn't listen to his body. He
takes a shot of cortisone, and keeps on going. And they have sex
in similar fashion."
There's a reason the penis, in its natural state, undergoes a period
of flaccidity: That's when it takes a breather. The blood within it is
replenished with oxygen. "During an erection," explains Eid, "very
little blood flows to the penis. During thrusting, pressure can go as
high as 200 mil of water. Zero blood flows into penis at that
time." To absorb oxygen, the tissue must become relaxed. "If you
do not allow the penis to rest, then the muscle tissue does not get
enough oxygen. The individual gets prolonged erections, gets
decreased oxygen to tissue, and could potentially suffer priapism."
(We recommend you get a medical encyclopedia and look it up.)
"The muscle becomes so engorged, it's painful. Pressure inside starts to increase. Cells start dying. More pressure and less blood flow. Eventually the muscle dies. Then there's scarring. That's why it's considered an emergency."
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