Abstinence: What Happens to the Body Without Sex?
Most adults have endured a sexual dry spell at one point or another.
These periods of sexual withdrawal can be viewed as a form of failure by some, especially when you're an adult living in a society that ties components of self-worth to how much action you're getting.
But what should we do? One answer is to ignore societal pressure. That could mean spending time adjusting the priorities of our love life following a recent breakup, exerting energy and time toward other activities, or taking a timeout from dating altogether while admitting we're not going to have sex for a while.
However, sex provides a number of positive effects on emotional and physical health due to the release of happy hormones.
What are happy hormones?
"Sexual activity, including sexual arousal and orgasm, can release certain chemicals in the brain, such as oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins, which can affect mood, reduce stress and promote feelings of pleasure and well-being," said Hayley Nelson, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and founder of the Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience in Philadelphia.
Because sex can activate the brain's reward pathway, abstinence's most common outcomes involve more anxiety, stress, lower self-esteem and strained relationships. When emotions and thoughts are easily affected by a lack of sexual activity, can the body show signs, too?
The short and elusive answer is maybe. While the scientific evidence for the body's response to a lack of sex is scant, a connection between sex hormones and the many mechanisms of the body is apparent.
"One study found that sexual abstinence may lead to changes in the immune system, including an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines, which can play a role in the development of chronic diseases," said Alex Polyakov, M.B.B.S., a gynecologist in Melbourne, Australia.
Multiple factors affecting health are at play, too. It's not just a lack of sex.
Your brain without sex
Of the theories seen across online conversations, a common topic is how a lack of sex may affect the brain.
"Some people believe that abstaining from sex can improve focus and attention span, although there is no scientific evidence to support this," Nelson noted. "In fact, some research suggests that sexual activity and orgasm can actually improve cognitive function."
Even so, she added, factors such as sleep, stress, diet and physical activity are more likely than sex to have a direct impact on cognitive function and attention span.
If you find your car keys sitting in the refrigerator next to the milk, maybe you can blame your sex life, though not solely.
On the subject of sleep, one of the beneficial side effects of sex is how it can improve a person's sleep. But does that mean you can expect sleepless nights when you're not getting any?
"It's true that sexual activity can result in the release of chemicals that can promote feelings of relaxation and sleep, such as endorphins, oxytocin and prolactin," Nelson said. "These chemicals can help to reduce stress and anxiety, making it easier for the body to fall asleep and stay asleep."
Withdrawal from sex may affect sleep, but it has a lot more to do with how the brain deals with sleep, not so much about sex. It's easier to see this process, for example, when you're cutting back on substances.
"[Changing habits around substance use] can lead to changes in brain chemistry, including changes in neurotransmitter levels and activity, which can disrupt normal sleep patterns," she said. "For example, withdrawal from alcohol can cause symptoms such as insomnia, nightmares and night sweats, making it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep."
How this affects your sex drive
Focusing on the gut—or the other "brain" in the body—expert sources listed constipation as a possible consequence of abstinence. It should be somewhat obvious, especially for women's biology, since the sex hormones involved in periods affect bowel movement. The same prostaglandins that help with the shedding of the uterine lining tend to relax the bowels; estrogen and progesterone are linked to constipation.
Also, orgasms spike estrogen levels. Estrogen is the hormone responsible for the normal functioning of skin and hair follicles. It also maintains skin hydration, improves wound healing, and increases collagen and hyaluronic acid production, said Keira Barr, M.D., a dermatologist based in Washington. These factors suggest abstinence can lead to dull skin and hair.
If you're trying to get back to sex after a period of going without, you may find your libido and sexual arousal have decreased and your pelvic muscle strength may have declined, too.
"Long-term abstinence can make you feel like a car with a flat tire. No matter how much gas you put in, you won't go anywhere," Polyakov said.
Remember, sexual activity is one of many factors that can affect health. The specific effects of abstaining from sex are not well understood and may vary between individuals.
It's important to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle. Engage in regular physical activity, eat a nutritious diet and manage stress to fuel well-being. When in doubt, it's better to check with a medical professional, and if you're feeling frustrated or not in the mood to share with people, masturbation and solo sessions can boost sex hormones.