The Benefits of a Healthy Sex Life

Woman stretching in bed

Women's Health Monthly: September 2017

"All women deserve to enjoy a healthy sexual life," says Nicole Cirino, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at OHSU's Center for Women's Health. 

As a reproductive psychiatrist and certified sexual health therapist, Dr. Cirino helps women who are struggling with emotional or mental health barriers to a healthy sex life.  

Studies have shown that sex is extremely beneficial to our health. Sex activates a variety of neurotransmitters that impact not only our brains but several other organs in our bodies.  

The benefits of sex for women include: 

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better immune system
  • Better heart health, possibly including lower risk for heart disease
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Decreased depression and anxiety
  • Increased libido
  • Immediate, natural pain relief
  • Better sleep
  • Increased intimacy and closeness to a sexual partner
  • Overall stress reduction, both physiologically and emotional 

Women, of course, have a variety of different lifestyles, situations, and preferences when it comes to sex. Fortunately, all women can experience benefits of sex, no matter their situation. 

What about women who don't have partners? 

"Having sex alone through masturbation won't stimulate the release of as much oxytocin or other mood-boosting hormones as having sex as part of a loving relationship," says Dr. Cirino. This means a little less benefit when it comes to self-esteem and depression. "But women without partners can still enjoy physiological benefits like pain reduction, better sleep and lower blood pressure," she says. 

What if a sexual experience doesn't include an orgasm? 

Dr. Cirino says that there are some neurotransmitters that don't activate without the orgasm, but there are plenty that do. "You can release neurochemicals from caressing skin, kissing, sexual talk, feeling close to your partner, and enjoying mutual sexual satisfaction," she says. 

What about women who may not have had sex in a long time? 

Studies show that the more sex you have, the better your sexual function will be. "Women who haven't had sex in a while can benefit from figuring out why not," says Dr. Cirino. "History of pain, trauma, or avoidance in other ways are all treatable."

What about women experiencing sexual dysfunction? 

A wide variety of issues –emotional, mental health, and physical –can interrupt a woman's ability to enjoy a healthy sex life. Dr. Cirino isn't the only one at OHSU's Center for Women's Health who understands how important it is to help women experiencing these problems. She's part of a team of specialists that will help women improve their sexual health in a comprehensive way. 

Overall, team experts include: 

  • Karen Adams, M.D. –Ob-Gyn and expert in treating symptoms of menopause 
  • Catherine Leclair, M.D. –Ob-Gyn and expert in vulvar health and treating sexual pain 
  • Nicole Cirino, M.D. –psychiatrist and expert in women's mental health and sexual health 
  • Lisa Egan, P.A.-C. –expert in caring for women experiencing gynecologic cancer or gynecologic symptoms after cancer treatments 
  • Sandi Gallagher, P.T., W.C.S. –physical therapist and expert in treating vulvar and pelvic floor problems 

This group came together because they truly believe all women should be able to enjoy sexual health if they wish, even if, for example, they're fighting cancer, struggling with depression, going through menopause, or having bladder or pelvic floor problems. 

Women experiencing sexual dysfunction will be seen by one or a combination of these providers, based on how best to treat their unique set of symptoms. The team members will work together, designing a comprehensive treatment strategy for each patient. They will also bring in other experts at the Center for Women's Health depending on a woman's needs. 

"We want women to know that we can talk about this in a medical setting," says Dr. Cirino. "Sexual health concerns are no less important than any other health problems women experience."

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