When I sent out our Newsletter covering this topic it created a bit of a stir. Which means people read it so that’s a good thing.
Sex and performance
There’s a long history of training lore that cautioned against sex. Problem is, not only does it take all the fun out of life, but it’s counterintuitive in many ways.
There’s a delicate balance between training and recovery. You train to stimulate the body. You break down tissue, you release hormones, you stimulate and stress the body to force it to adapt.The body adapts by releasing anabolic hormones to oppose the catabolic nature of the stress hormones. This is why we eat our post-workout protein, spend time in the sauna, go get a massage and make sure we get quality sleep. Well, guess what else quickly pushes the body into a parasympathetic relaxing state, quickly suppresses stress hormones and floods the body with healing hormones like oxytocin? That’s it – orgasm.
Here’s how orgasm works in the context of sex. There’s the excitement phase where desire builds. This is everything that happens before physical touch.This anticipation phase appears to be associated with the high output of certain stress hormones (catecholamines and cortisol) as well as activation of the dopamine circuitry in the brain. It also appears to elevate testosterone in some studies. The research in this area is far from being conclusive and there seems to be individual variation. For example, some women show lowered cortisol responses to this arousal phase while others show high-stress responses or none.
As things escalate to sexual activity, most of the changes we see are brain changes. One notable hormone elevated with physical contact is oxytocin, which has many positive effects. It’s mostly involved in feelings of bonding and connectedness and is correlated with lower stress hormones. Once orgasm arrives, it’s associated with many changes in the brain and two very notable hormone responses. Oxytocin peaks and falls pretty quickly after orgasm unless physical contact (i.e. cuddling) is maintained. The other hormone released is prolactin. In both men and women, prolactin levels rapidly increase post orgasm. The magnitude of release and the duration of elevation favours men, meaning men have a larger prolactin release and a longer period where prolactin is elevated. If any hormone can be considered the hormone of orgasm, it’s prolactin. The current consensus is that prolactin is responsible for the refractory period that occurs post orgasm. This refractory period involves loss of erection, decreased desire for sex, and – most infamously – sleepiness.
Women seem to suffer this refractory period much less, hence the ability for some to achieve multiple successive orgasms. If they do have this refractory state, it’s not as long-lasting. This is all regulated by prolactin. There are also several other post-orgasm changes, the brain is undergoing a fascinating set of changes post orgasm. These include increased activity of the areas associated with relaxation, touch, reward, memory, and pain sensation.
Apparently, orgasm is a pretty reliable pain desensitizer for women. This effect may last for hours after orgasm. Along with this comes decreased anxiety and less activity in the parts of the brain associated with fear and what researchers describe as a “trance-like state.” Less fear, less anxiety, greater trace-like focus, and greater pain tolerance? Sounds like the optimal mental state. Could orgasm be a performance enhancer for women? The research isn’t there yet. Sorry guys, it does look like the fear, anxiety, and pain reductions of orgasm may be female specific.
We can be pretty certain that sex works as a rest and recovery aid. Orgasm is one of the most relaxing activities on the planet. The post-orgasm changes in the brain are highly relaxing (said to resemble heroin). Dopamine levels fall and serotonin levels rise. We could imagine fewer cravings, more psychological wellbeing, less mental worry, and a greater focus on the present moment. The hormonal activity also supports rest and relaxation. Stress hormones, including cortisol, are generally shown to be lower (the cortisol response may be variable, especially in women). Oxytocin levels are elevated and can remain high with plenty of post-coital cuddling. This makes us feel supported, suppresses cravings, and gives an overall sense of wellbeing.
The biggest impact is prolactin, which is far more pronounced in men. This is likely the major factor involved in the ability to easily fall asleep after orgasm and why men suffer this stereotype more than women. All of this makes sexual activity an ideal recovery method for those who are subjecting their bodies to elevated training stress.
So in short,
- Sex is extremely relaxing and recuperative. Enjoying a good orgasm after a strenuous workout could aid recovery between training bouts.
- Guys, don’t just roll over after sex. Cuddle. It just may lower your cortisol levels and help your recovery. Plus your partner will like it.
- Ladies, there’s some indication you could get benefit from both pre-workout and post-workout orgasms. The brain changes of a pre-workout “O” may help you get more out of your training sessions. The hormonal effects after may aid workout recovery.
- Guys, you may want to experiment with no sex pre-workout, but instead get yourself worked up with erotic stimuli. You may enjoy strength gains and testosterone surges as a result.
- Guys, good sex post-workout may be a superior workout recovery strategy. A good orgasm will lower cortisol and help you rest.
- While there’s no conclusive evidence that sex impedes performance in any way, this likely depends on many factors.
- There’s some indication that abstaining from sex (men) for 5 to 7 days can raise testosterone and amp performance. Training hard during the week and then getting your release on the weekend may make some sense.
Hit the link to the original article written by Dr. Jade Teta and a full list of his reference material.