Exactly why sex is so beneficial to our mental health

Your mental health can be boosted by having a satisfying sex life, according to research (Getty Images)
Your mental health can be boosted by having a satisfying sex life, according to research (Getty Images)

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that self-care is of paramount importance to our wellbeing. We are more aware than ever of the ways to keep our mental health in check – from meditation and mindfulness to walks in nature. But there's one pleasurable activity which could help boost your mood without you even having to lift your head off the pillow – sex.

Medical research suggests sex is a great stress-reliever and mood-booster, as well as having many other health (and relationship) benefits. The only problem is, we’re not having enough of it...

David Spiegelhalter, Professor of Statistics at Cambridge University and author of Sex by Numbers, discovered a steady – but shocking – decline in sexual activity over recent decades in his research. He noted a 40% drop in the frequency of sex between couples during the 10-year period from 1990 to 2020, though the subsequent lockdowns may have shaken up those figures.

Here are six great health reasons why it's worth investing some time in your sex life...

Sex boosts serotonin levels

Sex is a sensory experience which lights up different parts of our brain to release mood-boosting chemicals like serotonin. During foreplay, as our sexual desire fires up, so does the level of serotonin in our body which in turn reduces any feelings of depression, stress or anxiety. As well as helping us feel good, it has a post-coital benefit too.

Read more: Women and orgasms: The 11 different types of female climax – and how to achieve them

One neuroscientific explanation is that increased sexual activity is linked to improved cognitive function. (Studies on rats demonstrate that daily sex over a two-week period increases neuronal density and reduces anxiety.)

Relationship Psychotherapist, Charisse Cook says if you’re struggling to find time for sex or self-pleasure, try and feel as ‘erotically alive’ as possible to help produce serotonin.

"I encourage my clients to explore – either solo or with their partners – the joys of massage, nudity, creative pursuits and projects, travel, titillating films and literature, and anything that can create and develop pleasure, indulgence and sensuality," says Cook.

Two women demonstrate a healthy sex life boosts mental health
A healthy sex life can help you feel 'erotically alive'. (Getty images)

Sex releases endorphins

"During intimacy endorphins produced by your pituitary gland and central nervous system act on the opiate receptors in your brain," says pharmacist Abbas Kanani of chemistclick.co.uk. "The signal from these feel-good hormones activates joy and happiness."

As we reach midlife, it’s more important than ever to keep our hormones in check to aid life expectancy. Dr Martin Kinsella, a hormone expert from bioidhealth.com, says,"Hormones are crucial to our general health but they are also extremely important in relation to our mood and feelings. Having sex or even having a sexual connection with someone can also reduce the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline."

Read more: Midlife women are happiest with their sex lives, according to study

Great sex is bonding

It’s easy to let sex slip in a long-term relationship when faced with work pressures, family life and... Netflix. But boxset bingeing isn't going to strengthen your love life.

Couple holding hands in bed
Focus on quality, not quantity, when it comes to sex with your partner. (Getty Images)

Alejandra Sarmiento, Psychosexual and Trauma Therapist at The Soke in South Kensington says we have to prioritise our passion for each other. "It’s not about the quantity of encounters, the emphasis should be more on the quality of the erotic connection," she explains.

"Eroticism makes us feel vibrant, alive and energised. In this way, sex can become a private language that you learn to speak fluently with your partner.”

Sex therapist Stephen Snyder, the author of Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship advises in his book to think of sex like dancing: “There are the emotional benefits of dancing itself. But there’s also the benefit of having someone ask you to dance. The feeling of being wanted and enjoyed. That’s a huge ingredient for happiness.”

Gay couple in bed demonstrating improved mental health
Making time for a sexual connection can strengthen your relationship bond (Getty Images)

Read more: How to overcome intimacy anxiety – and have better sex

Sex helps you sleep

Around 16 million of us in the UK suffer from sleep problems, with only a quarter of us managing five hours a night. The secret to dropping off naturally and getting your full eight hours? A bedtime cocktail of prolactin and oxytocin. When we orgasm we release a fizz of chemicals "which work as a natural sedation helping you sleep, which in turn gives you more energy throughout the day," says Kanani.

It’s also thought that women experience a rise in oestrogen levels during sex which has been shown to improve their REM cycle. Whereas in men, they mentally switch off quicker after orgasm. Sounds dreamy.

Read more: More Brits are discussing sexual wellness at work

Sex can boost our self-esteem

According the University of Toronto Mississauga, which carried out three studies involving 30,000 participants, researchers found that sex and relationship satisfaction peaked at a frequency of once a week.

Less than once a week had little impact on wellbeing, and having sex ten times a week brought no additional benefits. So no need to overdo it…

Therapist Sarmiento says when we connect to the carefree enjoyment of sex, we feel happier within ourselves, and as a result, have better self-esteem. Research supports this as when we orgasm, we release neurochemicals in our brains which bust stress or low moods.

“When we are comfortable with our deepest self, we become better at communicating our dreams and desires, and we have a better chance of having our needs met," Sarimento explains. "In turn, this makes us feel deserving, joyful and free. Sex is a direct avenue to fulfilment.”

Watch: Best friends turned their sex chats into a career

Sex is a workout

When we exercise, we experience a dopamine hit which boosts our mood and happiness. Dr Kinsella says, "'Exercise' is any activity that requires physical effort and so sex can absolutely count as this. It reduces levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and stimulates the production of endorphins that naturally trigger a positive feeling.

"Research also suggests that regular sex (once or twice a week) helps to increase levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA) – antibodies that fight illness, meaning that it could encourage a stronger immune system."

In fact you get double the rewards if you combine exercise with sexercise. Research by the University of California found that men who took an hour of aerobic exercise four times a week, not only experienced an increase in sexual frequency, but also sexual satisfaction. What's not to love?