What happens when you ejaculate too much?
Scientists are discovering a neurochemical "hangover" after sexual satiety, which if overridden by more ejaculation, adversely affects mood and the ability to cope with stimulants. First we'll look at the science; then we'll consider what it might mean for those masturbating more frequently than they would have without Internet porn.
Scientists do a lot of experiments on male rats in their quest to understand more about human-male sexuality. One of the most prolific research teams is in Mexico City. Last year they published an intriguing study revealing that after a rat satiates himself sexually (which is how rats normally mate, and requires an average of 2.5 hours and up to 7 ejaculations), he exhibits an initial cycle of measurable effects.
This natural cycle, which is apparently the first part of an even longer cycle, lasts 96 hours. During this time the rat's sexual motivation (libido) is nil-to-sluggish, and he is hyper-reactive to a variety of drugs. After these four days, he's able to copulate more than once, but it will take him 15 days to return to maximum studliness. According to the scientists:
The long lasting character of both [sluggish libido and hypersensitivity] can only be explained by the occurrence of brain plastic changes that, interestingly, disappear gradually in time.
Plastic changes are more than changes in levels of neurochemicals. They are changes in synapse strength between nerve cells. The former are fleeting; the latter linger. The researchers surmise that this "hangover" of plastic changes may be a protective measure against overstimulation of the brain's reward circuit:
It could be thought that the long lasting sexual inhibition resulting from copulation to satiation constitutes a protective mechanism against over stimulation of the brain circuits involved in its processing.
They point out that the effects of repeated ejaculation can mimic the effects of drugs of abuse:
The mesolimbic system [reward circuit] plays a role in the processing of natural rewards including sexual behaviour. Constant stimulation of this circuit by repeated administration of drugs of abuse produces behavioural sensitisation that resembles the drug hypersensitivity exhibited by sexually exhausted rats after repeated ejaculation in a short period, which would continually stimulate the mesolimbic system.
Overstimulation is overstimulation, and both sex and drugs can hammer the reward circuitry. Among the resulting plastic changes scientists have already measured in the brains of sexually exhausted rats are:
- reduced androgen receptors
- higher estrogen receptors in multiple brain regions, and
- increases in opioids that dampen libido.
In addition, whereas a rat with a full tank will respond to electrical stimulation of the reward circuitry with sexual behavior, a sexually satiated rat does not. His brain's pleasure response is numbed.
Incidentally, some changes begin after one ejaculation. Opioids rise right away, and androgen receptors begin a progressive decline, which encompasses additional brain regions as males sexually exhaust themselves.
UPDATE (2014): Researchers have shown that ejaculation, even twice a week, shrinks the dopamine-producing neurons in the VTA, which reduces a male's response to the pleasure of morphine. This also happens with repeated heroin use in both rats and humans. Scientists have also learned that amphetamine activates the exact same nerve cells as orgasm, urging the brain to "remember and repeat." In other words, drugs of abuse "work" because they're hijacking the mechanisms that evolved to make us want sex...and yet experience aftereffects from too frequent sex. (List of relevant studies)
What happened to rats that got it on too soon?
After sexual satiety, a rat's interest in sex plummets. For the first day or so, you can only rouse him to action one way: Furnish a novel female. It's common for mammals to override their normal sexual satiety for as long as willing females are around. Think mating season.
After 24 hours or so, however, Mr. Rat generally even ignores novel females. For the next day or two, he is in The Sexual Doldrums. During The Doldrums, only about a third of rats manage to ejaculate with a receptive female—and they can only do it once.
Interestingly, the researchers found that these superstuds didn't get the usual benefit from ejaculation. Normally, ejaculation mellows a male rat, reducing his anxiety for a bit. These guys remained anxious. These rats were also more reactive to drugs than other satiated rats, evidencing signs of low dopamine along the lines of a drug withdrawal.
In short, experimental evidence shows that "more is not better." In fact, "more" leads to elimination of benefits. What a concept: There can be too much of a good thing. Why don't you see this information in sex-advice columns?
But aren't humans different from rats?
Yes, but we may not be very different with respect to any of the mechanisms just described. After all, scientists aren't studying rats to help them with their erections and libido. In any case, according to the experts,
Even healthy young men display limited sexual behavior; suggestive of sexual satiety. [Neuroendocrine changes decrease] sexual arousal through inhibiting the central dopaminergic pathway.
In other words, we too have built-in mechanisms that encourage a period of recovery after sexual satiety. Consider the experience of a guy whose sex life consists of visits to his girlfriend on the weekends (as recounted by a single guy who had himself given up masturbation to porn a week earlier):
Thursday, leaving work, I noticed that there were like 5 amazing girls in front of us. My friend said he calls it the "Thursday Effect." His girlfriend lives in Gothenburg, so they meet during the weekend. He says on Monday morning he doesn't notice any attractive girl on the metro, a few on Tuesday, some more on Wednesday, and on Thursday it is full of gorgeous girls - based on the internal meter he uses to gauge how horny he is.
His experience is certainly reminiscent of the rat behavior in the study mentioned at the outset of this post. The day after his weekly visit to his honey, even novel females don't look good. Yet within a few days, his libido perks up.
How long is the cycle in men? Who knows? But we do know that there is at least a 7-day endocrine cycle after male ejaculation, because researchers find a mysterious, yet consistent, spike of testosterone around day seven. No one yet knows exactly what that testosterone spike does, or what other dominoes are implicated however.
How might our natural sexual rhythms collide with today's super-sexualized environment?
Keeping in mind that our neural mating mechanisms evolved to maximize reproduction, there seems to be only one natural way to override sexual satiety rhythms in mammals: a novel female. Unless our ancestors had harems, they were generally obliged to allow their brains some recovery time after they reached sexual satiety—before getting it on again.
These days, however, a bevy of novel mates begs for fertilization at a click. And when our brain grows less responsive, something even more stimulating is at the next tab. Are some guys losing touch with their "true libido?" No other mammal has porn to fire it up past its normal limits. Hunter-gatherer teens didn't sit in rooms alone at night burping their worms, or come home from school and fap to porn for a few hours before their parents showed up.
Adding to the confusion, masturbation apparently delivers a weaker "you're done" message than does intercourse. (Prolactin release is 4 times higher after sex.) It appears we evolved so that the occasional bout of solo sex wouldn't discourage us from chasing the real thing.
That said, there are sex-positive cultures in Africa that don't masturbate. A closer look at them reveals a mating pattern reminiscent of the one the scientists found in rats. When "searching for children," Aka and Ngandu mates copulate 2-3 times a night. But they don't do it every night. Moreover, until a newborn is walking, there is a taboo against sex between mates. Lovers get long rests—even allowing for a bit of cheating on the side.
In some men, today's sexual novelty-on-tap seems to activate that old mammalian program that rouses a male's appetite for new mates no matter how thoroughly he has satiated himself sexually. Would these men have a different sexual rhythm if Internet porn were not an option? Perhaps a rhythm controlled by evolved brain mechanisms—with time-outs after their sexual duty is done?
Overriding sexual satiety may produce a spectrum of symptoms
Our satiety mechanisms aren't foolproof. After all, if they worked perfectly (from our perspective), no one would be fat. We can, and often do, exceed them for "high-value" temptations. This makes supernormal stimuli different from everyday pleasures—even those we very much enjoy.
It is these modern goodies that have the unique ability to lead to overconsumption by urging us to override our natural "I'm done" signals. When we do, and our overconsumption becomes chronic, we risk longer-lasting brain changes.
Keep in mind that addictive drugs only cause addiction because they magnify or inhibit mechanisms already in place for natural rewards, such as sexual arousal. This is no doubt why scientists have proposed that the reward circuit is the final common pathway for understanding masculine mating behavior.
Might using the Internet to override sexual satiety produce low-level addiction-related changes in some users (e.g., accumulation of DeltaFosB)? As we've seen, the brains of sexually exhausted rats evidence low dopamine and blunted anti-anxiety effects when they override their natural sexual satiety rhythms.
Are men who constantly fertilize today's cyber "mates" risking a perpetual hangover when they ejaculate too frequently? Are they firing on fewer than all cylinders as a consequence? Ominously, many heavy Internet porn users report symptoms that suggest the answer is yes. Consider this guy's comments:
Masturbated 5 times today and all the old depressive feelings came back. I could clearly see that the depression was NOT because I felt bad about relapsing, because I didn't. It was all about my brain. It got depressed, paranoid and very anxious 30 minutes after my binge. I finally understand it now, not just in the abstract, but as a matter of experience. I recognized the feelings that often made me depressed and socially awkward. My solution was all the time the problem. I never suspected binging had this BIG an impact on my whole life.
Some men can easily reverse the effects:
I remember real vividly the early days of the interwebz, when teh Pr0n industry was first raking in credit card subscription fees (I used to have one) and when most of the "actresses" sported "glorious natural pelts" and did not have tattoos or belly piercings. ... In the first few years of being married, I regularly looked at teh Pr0n several times a week. I hid my credit card statements that showed the billing company info. I consumed it in secret. It was a forbidden thrill.
Then one day, I was ruminating while lying in bed, in a post-coital haze after consummating marital relations, and I realized something: Teh pr0n was ruining my enjoyment of the real thing. No matter what sex act or novelty we tried, it wasn't enough...more...More....MORE. When I used to look at girly mags or watch videotapes, I never had any problems or sense of dissatisfaction with my real life carnal experiences at all. I had a flash of insight: Teh Pr0n was insidious. [Friggin'] evil.
Soon thereafter I quit cold turkey. I cancelled my subscription and stopped visiting the then just-emerging free sites. Within a week or so, my attitude and satisfaction with marital relations improved dramatically.
In others, the plastic brain changes are pervasive enough to extinguish normal sexual performance:
I started looking into quitting porn after 6 months of sustained erectile dysfunction. I'm gay, and I would have boys that looked like 18-yo porn stars naked before me, and be completely unable to maintain an erection for sex, resorting to excuses of "I'm tired" or "it must be the alcohol." I have definitely noticed that if I go without all forms of porn/masturbation/orgasm for 2 weeks, I spring back to amazing capabilities.
Other guys appear to experience more lasting plastic brain changes, and even slip into addiction. When addicts give themselves a rest they face severe withdrawal symptoms and often a long "flatline" of sexual unresponsiveness. This guy self-identified as an addict and was trying to quit:
After 6 days of no porn/masturbation, I used it. Now, a day later, I feel a strong urge to use porn even though my penis is totally dead. It is NOT the penis needing the porn. No way. It is the brain. Here are my symptoms: Tired. Today I slept a lot. Bad flu-like symptoms. My throat aches like crazy. Depressive. I see everything in black. It's almost like the worst day of my life. Anxious, afraid. My voice is f-ed up. Had couple of really strange déjà vu experiences. Been thinking a lot about a few porn stars; can't get them out of my head. Can't work. I'm restless and disorganized.
It appears that some heavy porn users may be mistaking their persistent cravings for raging libido, when the cravings are actually addiction-related and arising from a sluggish dopamine response in their reward circuitry. Alas, when a man can ejaculate to porn, but not with his partner, he may misperceive porn's endless novelty as a "cure" for his sluggishness. By overriding his natural satiation signals with more stimulating visuals (more dopamine), he can cause further brain changes, which may erode his sexual performance for months.
How would the above science explain these men's experiences?
Many men who give up masturbating frequently to Internet porn report that they emerge from a sort of fog within weeks—even those who were not addicted. The benefits they recount sound almost miraculous. Perhaps they feel more assertive, productive and charismatic, find potential mates more attractive, or their motivation to accomplish their goals shoots up. Others report that they put on more muscle at the gym; their hair grows faster; their voices sound more confident and relaxed and even that stuttering stops. They become more responsive to non-synthetic sexual stimuli, and their sexual performance improves.
Are these men simply reversing the kinds of neuroendocrine changes seen in the sexually exhausted rats at the outset of this post? Are the men returning to normal?
This is a possibility worth considering and testing. Rats, after all, need 15 days to return to maximum virility. Men who have slipped into addiction are, of course, likely to need full recovery time, plus months for their brains to reverse longer-lasting changes. Some "flatline" for weeks or longer, after their cravings settle down.
It's worth mentioning that, quite apart from the effects of an underlying neuroendocrine cycle after sexual satiety, humans are not built for prolific ejaculation. Indeed, Promiscuity author Tim Birkhead points out that:
The rate of human sperm production is lower than that of any other mammal so far investigated. The numbers of sperm stored in the epididymis are also low.
Given the ease of connecting to today's Internet erotica drip, men who are experiencing unwanted symptoms owe it to themselves to consider whether they might be stuck in a perpetual neuroendocrine hangover of sorts—or even an addiction.
Is overriding natural satiety numbing frequent ejaculators to normal pleasure, making their partners less appealing, and decreasing relationship satisfaction? For example, might this factor account for the growing sex aversion in porn-friendly Japan? Or help explain why one in five Australian porn users prefers porn to sex?
In light of the wide range of benefits men report after they stop using Internet porn, these possibilities deserve careful investigation. At the moment, most guys today think of horniness as a trivial itch, which should be scratched whenever and however often it occurs—much like blowing a runny nose. Yet it looks like there's more to ejaculation than unloading manseed.
Also of possible interest: Women: Does Orgasm Give You a Hangover?
Watch Gary Wilson's recent TEDx talk: "The Great Porn Experiment"
And for science buffs: Growing evidence of a lingering post-orgasm cycle (links to studies)