A Healthy Sex Life for a Healthy Immune System Is a Win-Win
- We have two parts of our autonomic or automatic nervous system: sympathetic fight or flight, and parasympathetic rest and digest.
- Immune issues can occur from poor digestion when nutrients aren't absorbed properly and treatment would involve the spleen and stomach.
We know sex is an integral part of keeping our health in balance, but it can also be medicinal.
Sex, the natural body tonic
"There's a lot of benefits to having a good sex life, especially the hormones released during orgasm," said Heather Thompson, N.D., a naturopathic doctor on the west coast of Scotland. "It also puts you into that post-coital glow, which is also beneficial to your immune system. This is because your body is going into that relaxed rest-and-digest phase. That's really important for good immune function."
Immune system balance
"The immune system is such a huge topic nowadays, as it should be," Thompson said. "It has a huge impact on our sexual health. And our sexual health also has a powerful effect on our body's immunity to fight off illness and infections."
She said the immune system is like an ecosystem or a spider web where every part is affected and connected to the rest.
"So if we have an area out of balance, it's like tugging on one part of the spider web," she added. "The result is that the entire 'shape' of the web is pulled out of balance."
It's the role of the immune system to figure out what is you versus what is not you and use that information to protect you and eliminate outside threats. That's why it is such an issue when our immune function is compromised.
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Survival and recovery mode
Since our immune systems are hardwired from when we were in "animal mode," Thompson said we respond to stressors physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
"We have two parts of our autonomic or automatic nervous system: sympathetic (fight or flight), and parasympathetic (rest and digest)," she said. "If my nervous system feels in danger, my immune system is going to turn down my digestive system, reproductive system and hormones."
In survival mode, you don't need those things, and the body's ability to diminish their function is among the reasons how and why we have been able to evolve as humans.
The issue today is our threats are more numerous and complex.
"All day long we rush to reply to emails and try to get everything done on our to-do list. Our body thinks, 'Oh, this could be a threat. I don't feel safe. Let me turn down my digestion and reproduction so that I can focus on survival,'" Thompson said. "Now, we need to focus more on coming down from these stress responses and come into the relaxation parasympathetic rest-and-digest mode, so that our bodies have a chance to recover."
"What I see happening more and more is that the immune system is getting dysregulated and going a little bit rogue," Thompson said. "What we want to do [in these situations] is calm the immune system and reeducate it with treatments."
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the immune system is a type of Qi, which circulates in the body between the skin and muscles, according to Carol Goldman, D.A.C.M., the director of the Chinese Medicine Herbal Certificate Program at the Won Institute in Warminster, Pennsylvania.
This is known as Wei Qi, protecting the body from exogenous pathogenic factors such as harmful emotions, harsh weather conditions and microorganisms. She likened Wei Qi to how Western science would say that healthy eating combined with healthy air generates a robust immune system.
"Immune issues can occur from poor digestion when nutrients aren't absorbed properly and treatment would involve the spleen and stomach," she said. "Another example might be issues caused by poor blood circulation, in which case, treatment would involve the liver, gallbladder and heart systems."
Goldman noted another root cause of health issues is attributed to the kidney organ system. That system is responsible for water metabolism, the generation of healthy marrow and immune cells, supporting vitality, the body's innate healing capacity and sexual function.
"Within our organs, there is yin and yang energy," she said. "Yang energy is more direct in its involvement with the libido and is described as metabolic and transformative energy. Kidney yang energy is responsible for endocrine function, regulating hormone balance and also the libido. There are several yang-tonifying acupuncture treatments and tonics comprised of TCM herbs to boost libido function."
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In Thompson's practice, she uses adaptogenic herbs she describes as helping the immune system adapt to stress. She also recommends the vitamins known as the ACES—vitamins A, C, E, selenium—plus zinc.
"I really love using medicinal mushrooms," she said. "Nothing psychotropic, but the medicinal mushrooms, such as reishi, cordyceps, chaga and turkey tail. These are like sending your immune system to university. It teaches your immune system to work smarter, not necessarily harder.
"The one mushroom called cordyceps is known as the 'Viagra of the Himalayas.' It's a sexual tonic that I find really interesting. There are claims that it increases sperm count, but it also works on regulating the immune system and helping modulate our stress response."
Lowering your stress
"Constant stress or pressure means that our body is not always optimized for sexual desire," Thompson said. "Because our body is not feeling safe, it's not going to optimize for our hormones."
She explained that, especially for women, there can be cyclical fluctuations in hormones, even ones that are perimenopausal and postmenopausal.
"This means that our sexual desires and sexual health are going to vary within that cycle," she said. "During ovulation, we tend to get a surge of estrogen and testosterone, and that's often when we feel like we have a high sexual appetite. Compare that to the week before our period starts when we have more progesterone, which is our 'need rest, eat carbohydrates and wear comfy clothes' hormone."
Recognizing this cycle of change in people—in particular, their energy, sleep, mood and sexual appetite—is a large part of how Thompson educates and treats all of her patients.
Immune system checkup
Eating healthy, getting rest, modulating stress and taking vitamins all help to build immunity.
"But we're built for connection, so we need those relationships in life to nurture us," Thompson said. "We need people who make us laugh, who support us, and a healthy sex life is also really important."
For a personalized plan to help boost your sexual health and your immune system, talk with your primary care medical professional.