How Does Sex Heal?

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Visit artist's websiteAn ancient Chinese Taoist might answer that sex heals by setting up a nurturing exchange of subtle energy, which occurs naturally between the polar opposites of yin and yang.

In this newsletter we often look for the parallels between esoteric knowledge and recent research, so we naturally wondered if there were any scientific support for this concept. Surprisingly, the answer is "yes," although the evidence is somewhat subtle.

For example, University of Paisley researchers in the UK had people keep diaries that included sexual activity. Then they asked participants in the study to give speeches, in order to induce acute stress. Those who had penile-vaginal intercourse during the days preceding the speeches were less stressed and their blood pressure returned to normal faster than those who had engaged in oral sex or masturbation.

Said Professor Simon Crowe, head of neuropsychology at La Trobe University:

The physiology of sex is very complicated and one we know surprisingly little about given how much it affects our behaviour. But the different stress responses between penetrative sex and masturbation suggests the biology of one person affects another.

Sex research causes most journalists to wink and write superficial articles implying that the more sex (with orgasm) we have, the better off we are.1

couple in bedAre they right? Not necessarily. Balance appears to protect our health best. Consider a study done a few years back measuring the improvements in immunity (saliva levels of the antibody Immunoglobulin A (IgA)) associated with different frequencies of sex. Researchers found that people engaging in sex once or twice a week have substantially higher levels of IgA than people reporting sexual activity more than twice a week, or less than once a week. Compulsive sex has also been shown to drastically suppress the immune system.

To be fair, a 2004 study comparing frequency of ejaculation with prostate cancer found that one group of men in the study, who engaged in the most frequent ejaculation (21 or more times per month), correlated with a somewhat decreased risk of prostate cancer. Other studies showed no such correlations, and as one observer commented,

The bottom line was that comparing men with prostate cancer — regardless of how advanced it was — to men without the diagnosis — the frequency of ejaculations — however induced — was not linked to the risk of the disease - either increasing the risk or decreasing it.

Journalists, however, made much of the anomaly of the most-frequent-ejaculator category, drawing conclusions well beyond those of the scientists conducting the study, who said simply, "Our results suggest that ejaculation frequency is not related to increased risk of prostate cancer."2

In any case, the study did not address the state of mind or IgA levels of the frequent ejaculators. Giving one’s prostate a regular workout may be good for the prostate without being good for over all health, just as a regular runner may have statistically better cardiovascular health and yet damage his knees in the process. The good news is that making love frequently, but gently, without ejaculation also gives the prostate a workout. Hopefully scientists will someday measure the benefits of Taoist lovemaking upon the prostate.

But back to our query. Is it strictly intercourse that heals, or is it something subtler, such as the mutual flow of comforting energy? Consider an experiment that was done at the University of North Carolina.3 Researchers told couples they would have to give speeches. Before they did so, 100 of the couples sat holding hands for a short time, and then embraced for 20 seconds. Another group of couples rested quietly and were separated from their partners. During their speeches, heart rates and blood pressure rose twice as high in the second group compared to the hand-holders.

What about kissing? A Japanese study in 2003 asked patients who did not usually kiss to kiss freely during 30 minutes with their lover or spouse alone in a room with closed doors while listening to soft music. Both hay fever and eczema noticeably improved after a half hour of kissing.4

healing unionThese results suggest why the Taoists spoke of a subtle exchange of yin and yang as the reason why intimate union benefits mates. Intercourse is nourishing because it facilitates that exchange, but the exchange may not be whole dependent upon genitals…and certainly is not dependent upon orgasms.

70 years ago, J. William Lloyd MD, another careful past observer of sex and its benefits, put it this way in his beautiful little book The Karezza Method:

Sex is also like a food, and sexual contact with vital magnetic exchange at certain not-too-long intervals, varying with different temperaments, conditions and times of life, seems necessary for health and satisfying living and is also a perfectly valid and justifying reason for sexual embraces and caresses, even where there is only innocent need on one side and tender kindness on the other, or where on both sides there is only need and kindness. . . .

This exchange and mutual feeding can be effected in any way in which the sexes can come into each other's aura, but it is most easily effected by touch, and most perfectly by the complete union of Karezza [making love without orgasm]. The sexual orgasm having an entirely different purpose, that is, not the nourishment of the two individuals concerned, but the transmission of life and nourishment to another, a new and third organism starting from these two, tends rather to defeat and prevent the nourishment of the two, and is normally limited, usually, to propagation. . . .

I do not pretend to know what this sexual food is. We may theorize that it is a "flux of electrons," a "current of corpuscles," "hormones," or what not - who knows? — but its effects we may see.

In this newsletter, we usually don’t write about the benefits of lovemaking in terms of this subtle energy exchange. Instead we point out the benefits of lovemaking and close, trusted companionship, which appear to derive from oxytocin. Oxytocin counters the effects of the neurochemical cortisol, which is harmful at chronically high levels. The result is improved health, less depression and addiction, and greater harmony.

We also find it interesting that orgasms, like drugs of abuse, over-stimulate the reward center of the brain, causing neurochemical fluctuations which, when projected by lovers onto each other, can alienate them over time. To us, it’s fascinating that recent neuroscience is furnishing proof that the ancient Taoists were wise to learn to balance their sexual desire instead of indulging it to the point of driving mates apart.

In any case, we believe that both ways of looking at the benefits from lovemaking are valid. That is, a loving encounter no doubt benefits mates at both subtle energy and neurochemical levels.

The key point is that the gains from intimacy are powerful. Yet we reap them only when we can sustain the harmony in our relationships that lets us stay together joyfully and playfully. This is not easy when our mating neurochemistry is designed to push lovers apart and on to new mates.

Whether you prefer to think in terms of a cosmic electric current running between you and your lover, or in terms of a conscious effort to balance your neurochemistry with the loving support of your mate, we wish you the joy of a healing relationship.yin/yang symbol

Because every portion of the body, mind and spirit yearns for the integration of yin and yang, angelic intercourse is led by the spirit rather than the sexual organs. Lao Tzu 2300 BCE

  • 1. Here's an example of this type of superficial sexual journalism: The secret of being in rude health is intercourse In addition to the other distortions in this article, the claim that, "Recent studies suggest that men who have orgasms twice a week are half as likely to die early as men who orgasm less than once a month" is stretching the truth. The study referred to was done some 20 years ago. Middle-aged, generally married, men in Wales were asked to fill out questionnaires about all aspects of lifestyle over a period of years. They were not asked directly about orgasms (or masturbation). They were asked about "having sex"...until they complained about the embarrassing nature of the question and insisted that it be dropped.

    At the end of the study, a doctor found the partial results interesting. It is by no means clear, however, that the fact that those who reported having more sex lived longer due to their orgasms. They may, in fact, have benefited from the subtle energy exchange with their wives, or the greater relative harmony in their relationships...possibilities that never crossed the doctor’s mind, but would have immediately occurred to any self-respecting Taoist.

  • 2. It's interesting, though not conclusive, that oxytocin has been shown to retard cell division in both breast cancer and prostate cancer cells. We believe that an approach to lovemaking that emphasizes generous affection sustains oxytocin levels better than conventional lovemaking.
  • 3. Download this entire study, "Warm Partner Contact Is Related to
    Lower Cardiovascular Reactivity
    (PDF 64K).
  • 4. See 'Kissing reduces allergic skin wheal responses and plasma neurotrophin levels'

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