We often have sex on the brain. You know the days we mean, where our deepest desires slink into our minds during the most mundane moments: a sexy thought while loading a dirty wash, a rush of blood when riding the bus to work…and on the way back. But what effect does sex have on the brain? And how does getting down change what’s happening up there?
BY THE ROAM TEAM 4 MIN READ
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in your brain. It plays a role as a “reward center” and in many body functions, including memory, movement, motivation, mood, attention and more.
Serotonin is a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain and throughout your body. Serotonin plays a key role in such body functions as mood, sleep, digestion, nausea, wound healing, bone health, blood clotting and sexual desire.
If asked how they thought sex affected their mental health, most people would quickly come to the same conclusion - it makes us feel great. You don’t need a spreadsheet to know that being spread-eagled between the sheets is as feel-good as it gets. Sex - like a juicy strawberry, a true blue sky or the feeling of sliding between freshly-washed linen - is one of life’s simplest pleasures. Whether toe-curling or mind-blowing, sex can beam us up somewhere heavenly for seconds, minutes, or - if we’re really lucky - hours.
When you look at the science pressed-up behind it, it’s little wonder. It’s all thanks to a myriad of neurotransmitters - the body’s chemical messengers - firing simultaneously. You’ve probably heard of the major players before: serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. These elusive, heavenly chemicals induce euphoria and forge habits. If you’re horny, or moaning, it’s hormones. Let’s get stuck in.
We have really great chemistry
Dopamine, the ‘reward chemical’, hits us first. Even before we’ve stripped-off or made a swipe for the bottle of lube on our bedside table, the big D is pulsing through our brain and giving us a surge of energy. Why? Well, dopamine isn’t just reactive, it’s anticipative, preceding the stimulus. In the same way that you might feel a rush of it when adding a new pair of jeans to your cart, pouring yourself an ice-cold lager or whipping out a coin to etch off a scratchcard, dopamine actually precedes the activity, because your brain, literally, knows what’s coming. Then, it rewards you with pleasure after achieving the aim, meaning you might want to do it again (those who can consecutively orgasm, lucky you, those with a refractory period, be patient!)
Soon, oxytocin kicks in. Produced in the hypothalamus and induced by touch, it eases stress, strengthens your connection with your partner(s) and leads to a warm, glowing feeling of security. It’s what you experience when you gaze deeply into a lover’s eyes (with intention, not just because you’ve zoned out), embrace a friend or - whichever way you’d like to take this - stroke a pussy.
If we prudely cut to the end of the action, you’ll likely feel a hit of serotonin, especially if you end up orgasming. Serotonin’s main purpose is to boost mood, and sex releases a load of it. A lack of serotonin is traditionally thought to contribute to depression, so sex, in some ways, can help put you on the up. If you’re wondering what serotonin feels like, it’s what pours into your brain after you rue on a beautiful memory, catch some rays or, if you’re so inclined, do MDMA. It’s ecstasy.
Of course, it’s a lot more complex than this sequence suggests. Dopamine will run before, during and after your sexy time; oxytocin can actually induce erections rather than just be released; and too much serotonin - as anyone on SSRI antidepressants might have experienced - can inhibit orgasm. You can’t, unfortunately, get your head around chemicals in a rush.
So sex, in the short term, is usually pretty pleasurable, and this can carry through into the long term. As anyone who’s attempted the Standing 69 will understand, sex is a form of exercise, something we all know makes us feel good for a long time after we’ve finished. You usually take around half an hour to come up on your endorphin rush, and after that you’ll bask in the afterglow for hours, like when you go for an all-out run, or accidentally miss a step on the stairs.
It’s why some people choose to have sex everyday, continuing this chain of chemicals before it has time to fade. Of course, whatever amount you’re getting, as long as it’s what you and your partner(s) want, is ‘normal’. But if you are staunchly raunchy, you shouldn’t worry about it being unhealthy, especially as there are many well-documented benefits. From improving your cardiovascular health to reducing anxiety, even just doing bits can, well, do bits for your physical health, affecting your brain positively at the same time.
It would be wrong to suggest that getting frisky, though, is all sunshine and rimjobs. Sex, like any form of pleasure, can lead to distress when it becomes compulsive. The key to this, once again, is dopamine; pretty much everything that releases it - porn, cocaine, shopping, gambling, exercise and food - has the potential to become an addiction among a small number of individuals.
There’s a cleavage in scientific literature on whether sex faces the same potential cycle. Some psychotherapists, like Paula Hall, recognise it as a true addiction, highlighting that people can become dependent on sexual activity and seek it out even after they are wanting to stop. Others, like David Ley, warn that it shouldn’t be conflated with a (natural) high sex drive, or argue that instead it’s the related activities that become addictive - like porn - rather than sex itself. What most would agree on, though, is that it’s very rare, and unlike other compulsions, the behavior in mind can be enjoyed, healthily, in large quantities.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that for some people, casual sex can cause issues; some studies suggest that it can lead to feelings of loneliness, regret or isolation. Again, this is all down to individuals and their behaviors, and learning to understand yourself. Some people can stand an unlimited number of one-night-stands; for others, say if you’re demisexual, or just look for more meaningful encounters, hook-ups don’t cut-it, and that’s totally fine. And if you feel a little low straight after orgasming? Well, that’s normal too - it’s called post-coital tristesse - and is likely caused by the levels of hormones returning back to normal, a literal comedown.
While sex isn’t perfect, for the most part, it can work absolute wonders for your mind. As long as it’s consensual, loving and fun, making love can make the most out of your body’s natural highs, creating a giant, throbbing cocktail of delicious chemicals. If your head hurts after all this talk of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin: a different kind of head might do the trick.