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What Your Weekly Sexual Activity Says About Your Well-being

By Julia Reedy, MNSP, February 20, 2020

couple sexual activity wellness

Maintaining a thriving sex drive with age has always been a challenge, and the distractions of the 21st century haven't made it any easier to create and maintain intimate moments with our partners. But research shows that a healthy sex life is important for wellness and aging—those who have regular, partnered sex have different levels of stress, inflammation, and even blood pressure than those who don't. And if you find it hard to feel 'turned on' on a daily or weekly basis, there are actionable steps you can take to change that. Here's a summary of the health benefits associated with regular sex, how to boost your sex drive in your everyday life, and just how much sexual activity is best for your body—reader discretion advised.

 

The cyclical relationship between sex and stress is well-established

If you're feeling dissatisfied with the quality of sex in your relationship, it's time to consider you or your partner's stress levels. Stress and the resulting hormonal changes—like cortisol, aka "the stress hormone"—have significant implications on sexual performance. In fact, men with higher levels of cortisol in their blood have a higher risk of erectile dysfunction (ED) compared to men with lower cortisol.[1] Want to learn all about the connection between blood biomarkers and ED? This blog lays it all out.

And this doesn't just affect men. In women, lower stress and cortisol are associated with more sexual activity and improved sexual arousal.[2,3] This relationship between stress and sex quality also works in the opposite direction—sex can also be a direct stress-reducer.[4]

So what's the bottom line? Too much stress can get in the way of satisfying sex for anyone, but if you can quiet your stress levels enough to share a romantic moment, intimate sex can significantly improve stress and cortisol.[4] And ultimately, optimal cortisol levels won’t just help with sexual performance—they’re also important for things like sleep quality, weight maintenance, and immunity. If you're looking for ways to alleviate stress with actionable changes, check out our blog on the topic.

 

Testosterone and sexual activity have a complicated relationship

We've all been made to believe that people (particularly men) with high sex drives can attribute their libido to high testosterone levels. And extremely low levels of testosterone can certainly inhibit libido, but the evidence doesn't support the 'more testosterone=more sex' theory. In fact, research is inconsistent about total testosterone’s impact on sex drive in younger men.[5,6] Instead, it seems that free testosterone—the active version of the hormone—is a much more important metric in this age group.[6] 

testosterone-vegan

The relationship between testosterone and sex becomes meaningful with older age, though, specifically for men over 60.[5] This means that if you're around 60 or older and are frustrated with a declining sex drive, it's worth getting your testosterone levels checked. Now, low testosterone won't completely explain a waning sex drive—ultimately, age itself unavoidably causes low libido, regardless of hormone levels. But if your T levels are below optimal, making changes to bridge the gap may give you just the natural boost you're looking for. One interesting change to make? Consider your intake of animal products. An analysis of InsideTracker users found non-vegans had significantly higher levels of testosterone than vegans. You can read about our findings here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the research connecting testosterone and sex drive have focused on male subjects. And since women aren't just smaller men—especially in the hormone department—these findings can't be generalized to us ladies. But the information that is available indicates that testosterone is indeed important for women's sex drive. In women with clinically-low sex hormone levels, sex drive improves significantly when testosterone treatments accompany traditional estrogen ones. And while results from a clinical trial don't necessarily apply to the general population, there is some evidence that optimized free testosterone levels are associated with a greater sex drive in women.[7]

BENEFITS OF SEX

A healthy sex life can even promote longevity

Arguably the most convincing argument on prioritizing sexual activity is its positive impact on aging. Sex is an important part of a healthy partnered relationship and can promote feelings of emotional intimacy, mental health, and self-esteem—it's even been called "therapeutic" for aging populations.[8] It also has big-picture impacts: feeling connected to other people appears to be an important factor of healthy aging and is a commonality among the world’s longest-living people. Check out our blog on the world’s Blue Zones to learn more about this theory. 

Sex may also reduce inflammation, particularly in older adults. In fact, one study found that the more sex someone had, the lower their levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) and white blood cell count (WBC)—both markers of inflammation.[9] And since inflammation is one of the most important factors of vitality and longevity, regular sexual activity can play an important role in healthy aging. Looking for quick ways to improve inflammation and longevity? Here's a list of some of the best foods for both.

Did you know? Sexual activity is as strenuous on the heart as a brisk walk or climbing two flights of stairs.

A healthy sex life may even help to prevent heart disease later on in life. In fact, women who report high levels of physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction from sex were less likely to develop cardiovascular risks—particularly high blood pressure—as they age.[4] Men can also reap some benefits—those who have more sex are at lower risk of stroke and other coronary heart disease later in life.[4] This is probably due to a combination of things, like sex's positive impact on stress and inflammation, and the fact that its impact on heart rate and blood pressure is similar to a brisk walk.

Get our FREE Recipes for Longevity eBook.

 

You can boost your libido without exotic aphrodisiacs

Looking at the body of research, it seems that there's one thing everyone can agree on: sexual activity decreases with age. The reason behind this—whether it's energy levels, hormone decreases, physical fitness, or a combination of many factors—is more contested. But we can make changes in our lives and focus on key biomarkers to prevent this decline as much as possible. The best part? Turns out, the top ways to boost libido also increase longevity, because all roads lead back to a strong heart and healthy, clear arteries for uninhibited blood flow throughout the body:

testosterone cortisol ratio logo

  • As mentioned above, optimizing cortisol and free testosterone levels can have a positive effect on sex drive in both men and women. InsideTracker measures your blood testosterone-to-cortisol ratio, which can be a great way to see if a combination of high cortisol and low testosterone are taking a toll on your sex drive.
  • Sex drive in those who are overweight, particularly men, can benefit greatly from healthy weight and fat loss [10,11,12]
  • Men with high blood pressure are about twice as likely to experience erectile dysfunction (ED) than men with normal blood pressure.[12] Looking for ways to lower yours? We wrote a blog about it.
  • Regular exercise has also been described as an "ideal treatment" for ED.[12] 
  • Knowing your vitamin D levels is critical as well—ED symptoms can significantly improve with a supplement in men who are otherwise deficient [13]
  • Interestingly, for women, distraction during sex is a major predictor of arousal. So if you're having trouble getting into the groove, eliminate distractions and set a scene that allows you to settle into the moment.[3]

 

And now for the big question: how much sex is best?

Ultimately, the connection between sex and wellness is a "chicken or the egg" scenario. That is, are people who have more sex healthier than those who don't because (at least in part) they have more sex, or do they have more sex because they're healthy? Given the current body of research, it's hard to be sure. 

But as it stands, research agrees that a moderate amount of sexual activity is best. Too little keeps us from reaping any potential health benefits, but too much may actually be detrimental to health, particularly in older populations. So what's the happy medium? It seems that if you're having sex at least once every other week or up to three times per week, you're in the ideal zone.[4,14]

Sex is a personal and, at times, uncomfortable topic to talk about. But knowing the facts about its relationship to our well being is an important first step towards an ideal sex life, however you define that for yourself. Hopefully, knowing even a little bit more about sex can help you feel agency over your sex life and empowered to make the right decisions for yourself and your relationships.


 


Reedy Headshot (3)Julia Reedy, MNSP
      • Julia is a Written Content Strategist & Editor at InsideTracker. She loves to use her experience in cutting-edge nutrition research and writing to spin complex health and nutrition topics into clear, approachable info everyone can relate to. As an inquisitive food shopper, she's constantly reading ingredient lists—and leaving shelves of backward products in her wake.
      •  

References

[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/ijir200914

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20545400

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4199300/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5052677/

[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7069152-relationship-of-serum-testosterone-to-sexual-activity-in-healthy-elderly-men/

[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11942957-the-clinical-relevance-of-sex-hormone-levels-and-sexual-activity-in-the-ageing-male/ 

[7] https://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJM200009073431002?articleTools=true

[8] Kontula, Osmo, and Elina Haavio-Mannila. "The impact of aging on human sexual activity and sexual desire." Journal of sex research 46.1 (2009): 46-56.

[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28372938

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21819545

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24196274 

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19170860

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28074679 

[14] https://www.health.harvard.edu/exercise-and-fitness/is-sex-exercise-and-is-it-hard-on-the-heart