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This has to qualify as one of the more exciting stories of the year: Turns out, sexual pleasure is so damn healthy, someone oughta be bottling it as a cure-all. Too good to be true? Come along on our orgasm fact-finding mission.
Talk about getting your knickers in a twist. When earlier this year a brochure from the British National Health Service announced, “An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away,” it created an immediate brouhaha, with educators and health experts calling it deplorable and warning that it would encourage "risky" behavior and STDs.
Okay, maybe the Health Service did go a bit too far when they created a page from a fictional high-school girl’s weekly planner with handwritten reminders to “masturbate!” and “bring condoms to the date on Saturday!” But it turns out, they have a very strong point. “There are a number of health benefits to be gained from having sex or an orgasm — or many orgasms — daily,” says Yvonne K. Fulbright, PhD, author of Pleasuring: The Secrets of Sexual Satisfaction. The stress-relief goodies are obvious, along with better sleep and some PMS pain relief. But that’s just the small stuff.
In Peak Condition
Experts agree that there’s growing evidence of wide-ranging health benefits of orgasms, starting with the biggie: longevity. Research shows that men who have two or more orgasms a week live longer than do guys who have fewer than that. And while female orgasms haven’t yet been studied separately, another study shows that women who report enjoying intercourse live longer than do women who reported less pleasure in sex.
One reason for the longevity bonus could be that orgasms have positive effects on various organs and body systems. For instance, says Beverly Whipple, PhD, coauthor of The Orgasm Answer Guide, “Studies are showing that as sexual activity goes up, the risk of breast cancer goes down.” This could be due to the surge of hormones like oxytocin that comes with arousal and orgasm, the research suggests.
There is also evidence that frequent orgasms may protect against heart attacks and keep our brains healthy. “Functional MRI images show that women’s brains utilize much more oxygen during orgasm than usual, similar to the effects of exercise,” says Barry Komisaruk, PhD, coauthor of The Science of Orgasm. “In other words, the brain is being nourished,” which helps keep your mind sharp.
Meanwhile, you’re also blocking pain. Studies have shown that orgasms can work as natural analgesics to help alleviate menstrual cramps, migraines, and other aches. “Instead of ‘Not tonight. I have a headache,’” says Whipple, “maybe it should be, ‘Yes, tonight. I have a headache.’”
It’s possible that the hormone rush during climax may also function as a natural sedative, Whipple adds. A study of more than 1,800 American women who reported masturbating found that a whopping 32 percent said they did so to help them drop off to sleep.
And — maybe partly because of all that stress relief and beauty sleep — orgasms are good for your looks as well. In a study of 3,500 people, those who were rated to look 7 to 12 years younger than they they nearly always achieve orgasm alone, while less than half say that holds true during sex with a partner.
But if you plan to have a daily orgasm the way you plan to have your yogurt and granola in the morning, won’t that make sex a tad unspontaneous? Au contraire, says Fulbright. “Daily is an ideal. You may not always have the time or the energy, but why not aim high?” Take it out of a to-do list mental category, she advises, and think of it as a personal investment. And use the frequency as an incentive to experiment. “Explore the differences in response and the potential different kinds of orgasms you can have,” she says. Including the solo kind, which offers the same boons as boyfriend-induced Os, according to Whipple. You don’t need to be in a relationship with another person for regular orgasms to be a huge health plus, she says, adding, “You can be in a relationship with yourself and get the same benefits.” Not only does all this stimulation kind of bathe you in a sexy glow — if you’re having that much sex, it’s going to be on your mind more, and that shows on your face and in your movements — but it also becomes this fabulous self-fulfilling prophecy. Because you’re thinking about it more, your hormone levels are elevated...so you have more sex...which makes you think about sex more often. Even if you don’t end up living longer, you’ll have a helluva lot more fun. Indeed, experts say the changes themselves can actually enhance the relationship and make for better sex -- if the couple discovers ways to capitalize on them. Here's how to have the best sex after 35:
A gratifying sex life after 35 calls for a series of adjustments. Some people confront them poorly: the 45-year-old male who skitters off after a 21-year-old cocktail waitress, the middle-aged woman who flirts to prove that her allure hasn't faded. But for couples who understand the normal and inevitable changes, and meet them together, sexual pleasure can be greater than ever. Their sex lives will be rich in their 40s, 50s -- and beyond.
- Reset the pace. "Sex in the young is fast and furious," says Dr. Herant Katchadourian, professor of human biology at Stanford University. "It ignites easily and fizzles out like fireworks." A man in his 20s achieves orgasm within two to five minutes after intercourse begins; his wife may take 20 minutes or more to reach her peak of excitement. "While she's still warming up, it may be all over for him," says marriage, family and child counselor Bernice Itkin of San Francisco.
But as a man ages, the tempo changes from allegro to largo. Because of a normal slowing of blood flow and changes in muscle tone, men in their 40s or 50s require more time to reach a climax, and their orgasms are less forceful.
Now a husband's timing more closely matches his wife's. He may become more in tune with her interest in a slow, sensuous seduction. With this kind of synchronization, it's no coincidence that women respond enthusiastically. According to a 1994 University of Chicago study, women in their 20s are least likely of all age groups to achieve orgasm during intercourse. Women in their early 40s are most likely -- and by a wide margin. By concentrating on how he is increasing his wife's pleasure, a man can increase his pleasure as well.
- Take action. "A young man can get an erection at the drop of a hat -- or bra," says Judith Seifer, president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. But after 35, he may be turned on less by what he sees than by his wife's kissing and caressing. The University of Chicago study found that 51 percent of 25- to 29-year-old men became excited when they watched their wives undress. By the mid-40s, the percentage dropped to 40. Once couples learn to pay less attention to what they see and more to what they do, says New York City sex and marital therapist Shirley Zussman, their sex lives improve dramatically.
- Balance the seesaw. When they were first married, the man remembered, he always took the sexual lead, pulling his wife close and whispering his desire to make love. But now, 20 years later, she often makes the first move.
Again, hormonal changes are bringing the couple into closer balance. Men and women both produce testosterone and estrogen, but the proportion of each changes over the years. The male's shifting levels of estrogen and testosterone may make him more willing to follow than to lead, happy for his wife to set the pace. And as a woman's estrogen declines and her testosterone becomes proportionately greater, she may become more assertive.
- Dare to experiment. As partners become older, more experienced and more trusting of each other, they may become less inhibited in their views of what constitutes satisfying sex. "When we were first married, I couldn't have imagined myself saying 'Touch me there,'" one woman says. "The scenario has changed now, but it's not that we're all that different. It's that our relationship just got deeper."
Says Zussman, "It's a time for new ideas, or a new look at old ideas."She recalls one 40-ish couple seeking to put more zest into their relationship. "Do you ever shower together?" Zussman asked. The two looked at each other. "We used to," the wife said sheepishly. "Try it again," the therapist suggested. They did -- and it worked.
"Intercourse isn't everything," Zussman says. "It's like the old travel slogan: getting there is half the fun."
- Achieve more from less. The University of Chicago survey showed that nearly half of 25- to 29-year-olds said they made love at least two or three times a week, including 11 percent reporting four times or more. By the early 40s, the number had fallen to 30 percent. The largest proportion, 45 percent, reported sex "a few times per month" (possibly due, in part, to fatigue and the demands of child-rearing). Yet more than any other group, men and women in their 40s considered themselves emotionally and physically satisfied by their lovemaking.
As the frequency drops, couples should realize that each encounter can become more special, a moment to be anticipated and savored. In a secure relationship, there is less emphasis on how often, and more on how good. "I find that people in their 40s or so remember this moment or that moment, whereas to the younger ones, it may be all a blur," says Zussman. "When it's no longer an everyday thing, it means more."
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA