The science of sex (and love)

A story of how relationships can extend our lives or lead us to an early grave

When it happened, Lara was bored. She was sitting with a group of people in starchy shirts and Dockers, listening to a conference presentation, a Styrofoam cup of weak, complimentary coffee in her hand. Finally—blessed break!—it was time to file in line for stale doughnuts and muffins for 15 minutes.

And within that 15 minutes, she fell in love.

Of course, she didn’t know it at the time. It felt like a rush, a twang, a hand squeezing her heart, a palpitation, a jittery excitement all resulting from his smile. This stranger’s smile that could put Paul Newman’s to shame. He had a casual ease about him as he was bending over the coffee carafe for a refill, then stood tall to look at her dead-on and smile. She thought she saw something flicker in his eyes. A flush of surprise, then a charming, uncertain “Hello,” followed by nervous attempts at small talk. His name was Ethan. She doesn’t remember the conversation. It didn’t matter. This is what they meant by attraction—she felt physically drawn to him. Magnetic forces were literally pulling her toward his body. When they sat together for the second portion of the conference, his knee brushed hers. Funny, she never thought of a knee as an erogenous zone before.

After the final handshakings of colleagues, he invited her for coffee. They talked in the café until it was time for dinner. They had that together, too. And despite never having done such a thing before, she found herself at his place that very night, fingers running through his hair, mutual amazement running between their eyes. She’d had lovers before. A number of them. But him—she felt as if she’d already slept with him; that she’d known him forever. And as they explored lines, angles and curves, they melded and disappeared, an alchemy of two bodies finding each other, cells meeting cells that already seemed well acquainted.

While she would let what felt like nothing short of magic transpire, she also was well-read about the chemistry of love. She knew this love/lust feeling was making her mind have serotonin levels more akin to those of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder. And she knew her body was receiving—from first blush to orgasmic release—stuff drug addicts fiend for: dopamine. It was pulsing through her like a shot in the vein. It would be followed after orgasm by a mind-bending natural cocktail of oxytocin, endorphins and other chemical trappings of love that appear to make men want to sleep and women to cuddle. The orgasmic release would help her feel less stress, diminish feelings of pain, lower her blood pressure and decrease her risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes. The oxytocin would also make her want to bond with him, grow closer to him, care for him. So by the time the dope-induced flame fizzled, oxytocin—if rigorously nurtured—could help her ride out a loving relationship that could include having children, facing hard times and old age together.

The more sex, the better
From scientific reports and personal experience, Lara knew that sex—whether by herself or with someone else—was good for both men and women. About the only times it isn’t are when 1) it’s forced and 2) multiple partners and unprotected sex make a person vulnerable to STDs, and by extension, other health risks, including cancer. Aside from that, sex is one of the best things humans can do for themselves.

A 1997 study reported in the British Medical Journal showed that men who had the most orgasms lived longer than others. A follow-up study in 2001 found that men could cut their risk of heart attack or stroke in half by having sex at least three times a week. And Wilkes University in Pennsylvania found that people who have sex once or twice a week had 30 percent higher levels of the immunoglobulin A antibody, resulting in less-frequent colds and flu cases.

In addition to relieving stress, elevating mood and helping people sleep, orgasm—either through masturbation or with a partner—has been found to provide short-term pain relief. The surge of oxytocin that builds with the climax releases endorphins, which can help things like headaches, arthritis and PMS pains. Sex is also great exercise, burning off about 85 calories for every half hour, and it strengthens women’s pelvic floor muscles.

In men, orgasm may also help reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Researchers reported in the British Journal of Urology International that men who ejaculate five or more times a week while in their 20s reduce their risk of prostate cancer by a third. Another study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 21 or more ejaculations a month were linked to lower prostate cancer risk in older men.

There are even reports that semen may help alleviate symptoms of depression in women. That may sound like a male-concocted pick-up line, but a study of students at the State University of New York in Albany suggests that women whose male partners didn’t use condoms—again, this could be risky in terms of STDs—were less subject to depression than those who did, which may be attributed to prostaglandin, a hormone found only in semen that could be absorbed to affect female hormones. Furthermore, semen when swallowed could help prevent tooth decay, as it contains zinc, calcium and other minerals. It’s also suggested that swallowed semen can lower the risk of preeclampsia, which is dangerously high blood pressure that sometimes accompanies pregnancy.

Dr. Tony Papa with UNR’s Department of Psychology.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

Then there are those harder to quantify health benefits sex can provide, like better self-esteem and improved intimacy—again, primarily thanks to oxytocin.

Love & marriage
Lara and Ethan knew not to fully trust those first months of rapture. But in their case, the love-binding natural hormone oxytocin continued to flow. They nurtured it with hugs, kindness, loving glances, and yes, lots of sex. And the steaminess did begin to fade, but a calmer, more solid love began to replace it.

They got married, and when she said “yes,” she wasn’t really thinking about the health effects of their union. She just knew she wanted him and that they made a good team. But research also shows that if the marriage is a healthy one, so typically are the married couples’ bodies and minds.

In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control reported that married people were healthier than those who were single, divorced, separated or widowed. The report said married people were half as likely to be smokers, less likely to drink alcohol, more physically active and less likely to suffer from headaches, back pain and psychological stress disorders than non-married people.

Dr. Tony Papa in the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno said people with long-term partners tend to have more regular daily routines, which benefits their health.

“Married people tend to regulate their emotions together rather than inwardly—sharing and commiserating, but not necessarily just talking,” he said. This helps them cope better, which reduces stress.

Women in happy marriages also have been shown to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to a study conducted by UCLA and published in the journal Health Psychology. Married men in the study had less stress after busy days at work regardless of whether the relationship was happy or not. However, unhappily married women didn’t experience lower cortisol levels after coming home from long days. The study’s authors speculated this may be the case when the demands of domestic life aren’t being shared equitably between men and women who both work. Co-author Rena Repetti said, “Past research has found that men appear to get a health and longevity boost from marriage, while for women, being married is only beneficial insofar as the marriage is high-quality.”

Attachment & heartache
Lara also knew that how she dealt with relationships was set into motion as a child. “Attachment theory” is a concept first suggested by psychologist John Bowlby that basically says the interactions we have with attachment figures, such as parents, affect our interactions with people the rest of our lives. It’s based on four basic types: 1) Secure, in which attachment figures or parents met nearly all their needs; 2) Avoidant, in which attachment figures keep the child at an arm’s length, which can cause that child to grow up to be overly independent and closed off; 3) Anxious or Preoccupied, where the parents would “give in” to a clingy child, who may grow to be a clingy adult; and 4) Disorganized, which may be associated with abuse or trauma.

“Your attachment style can change,” said Dr. Papa. “Someone kind of preoccupied can meet a secure person, and they could become more secure.” Or vice versa.

Neither Lara nor Ethan had perfect childhoods, but they weren’t traumatic, either. Through the years, caring for each other became second nature. They had a personal investment in each other and in the family they had created and become.

This is not to say theirs was a perfect relationship. There were resentments, tensions, work stress taken out on each other at home, bitter words better left unspoken, occasional jealousies and drunken eruptions. There were times she thought marrying him was a mistake. Times she thought she should leave. Times they looked at each other in complete bewilderment—a gulf of misunderstanding and hurt spreading between them. She would go to bed crying, and awaken shaken and exhausted, as if nutrients were removed from her body through the tears. She’d think about how what she felt now was anything but healthy—it felt more like an illness. She had a number of these periodic heartaches throughout their relationship, though they always seemed to work through them.

The “love hormone,” oxytocin, if rigorously nurtured, can help a couple form a lasting love.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

She’d read the reports: Heartache, separation, divorce and tense relationships can have negative effects on health. They can cause anxiety, stress and feelings of helplessness and entrapment.

“Separation and divorce is related to an increase in cortisol and stress hormones that can have a dramatic impact on well-being,” said Dr. Papa. He suspects that’s true for any breakup. The good news, he says, is that people tend to get over it.

“If humans were incapacitated completely by loss, we’d probably die off as a species,” he said.

This idea gave Lara some comfort when the inevitable happened.

After more than 40 years together, just after they’d both retired, Ethan was diagnosed with cancer. Six months later, he was gone. The void he left was indescribable. For 40 years, their lives were tuned to each other. He was her best friend, her lover, her closest confidant, her partner in life’s details and grand schemes. The interruption of their life together felt as rude and unexpected as a drunk at the symphony.

Others she’d known hadn’t been able to move past their spouse’s death. They stayed in their homes, feeling ill, barely eating, in a walking state of shock, waiting to join their partners in death.

She recalled a study from the University of Tubingen Medical Center in Germany, which found that the brains of women grieving over lost romance—let alone death—are similar to those going through post-traumatic stress disorder. Both experiences create much less activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotion, motivation and attention.

She thought of Johnny Cash and June Carter. June died on May 15, 2003. Johnny followed her less than four months later.

A study published in 2006 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, among the elderly, hospitalization of a spouse is associated with an increased risk of death, and is slightly higher for men than for women, though it varies depending on the illness.

“[Older] people may not have as many friends,” said Dr. Papa. “Their main, regular social interaction was that person who just died.”

Lara’s grief process, she’d heard, went back to attachment theories. No doubt she was attached. But she also felt secure. She was told this meant she would be able to move on with her life. That it wouldn’t end with him. That she would grieve, but the rawness of it would eventually fade. She found this hard to believe but put some faith into it. She would somehow start her new life, get back out into it, make new friends, and discover what life had in store for her remaining years.

The letting go was the hardest part of love for her. But as experience and research have shown her, the absence of love shortens life more than any heartache could.

* The characters in this story, Lara and Ethan, are fictional. The scientific research is not.