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What Does Sex Do to the Brain?

Serotonin, oxytocin and adrenaline are just some of the feel-good chemicals that get released during sex. These chemical messengers can forge feelings of attachment and love.

In one study, scientists used a PET scan to observe the brains of male participants as they sexually stimulated themselves or were pleasured by their partners. They found that activity in multiple regions increased gradually until orgasm, then decreased afterwards.

Endorphins

Endorphins are polypeptides produced by the pituitary gland and bind to opioid receptors in your central nervous system to reduce stress and pain – This section is the result of the service team’s efforts Divine Intimacy. They also influence feelings of pleasure. They are the body’s natural painkillers and can relieve headaches, especially if you have a migraine.

As the sexy chemistry between you and your partner begins to take off, certain brain regions become more active. The limbic system—which is responsible for physical drives and elements of emotional processing—is triggered, along with the insula and anterior cingulate cortex.

During orgasm, the ventral tegmental area6 activates to help process pleasure and rewards. It sends signals to the amygdala to create emotions, while the prefrontal cortex shuts down, which could explain why you seem so in control during climax.

And, as if that weren’t enough, oxytocin and those feel-good endorphins raise your pain threshold, reducing the intensity of migraine and cluster headaches. Studies suggest that sex is a good way to fight depression, too. Getting a little intimate can boost your heart rate and, over time, raises levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

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Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the hypothalamus that controls various brain functions including sexual arousal, recognition, trust, and mother-infant bonding. It’s also known as the ‘cuddle chemical’ for its ability to promote feelings of love and bonding.

Your brain releases oxytocin during foreplay, arousal and orgasm to help you feel close to your partner and experience pleasure. This is why you can’t help but kiss and cuddle after a good sex session.

Studies have shown that oxytocin, vasopressin and endorphins make you less sensitive to pain during sex. In fact, researchers have even used a nasal spray that boosts natural oxytocin levels in men to treat anorgasmia (failure to orgasm) and migraine headaches.

Research also suggests that being sexually active can boost cognitive function in both men and women. One theory is that it encourages the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which helps with memory recall. Studies of older adults also show that people who are more sexually active have better verbal recall.

Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that sends messages between nerve cells in the brain and throughout your body. It plays a key role in your mood, as well as helping regulate appetite, body temperature and sleep. It also helps you learn and remember things, and lack of serotonin is linked to depression, anxiety and mania.

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Serotonin’s a big part of why you feel so good during sex. During orgasm, brain activity in multiple regions rises gradually before reaching a peak at orgasm. This includes parts of the brain involved in sensation, emotion, motor control and frontal cortex.

Interestingly, orgasm lights up the same parts of the brain in both men and women. A Dutch study used a PET scan to watch participants as they were sexually stimulated by their partners, and they found that during orgasm, blood flow increased to the cerebellum, which processes emotions. Meanwhile, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, shuts down.

Research has even shown that those who engage in regular sex have better memory. Moreover, it may promote the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus.

Adrenaline

Whether you’re in the mood to snuggle up with your partner or rip into them, it’s important that you always use safe methods of protection during penetrative sex. In addition to the feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin, adrenaline also helps us memorize things. In fact, one study found that people who reported having more sex had better verbal recall than those who did not. It’s thought that regular sex stimulates the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory.

Medical imaging tests suggest that multiple spatially remote areas of the brain are activated during sex and orgasm, including the genital sensory cortex, motor areas and hypothalamus. The genital area lights up as it registers the touch of the penis, while the motor areas light up as they anticipate sexual stimulation and the hypothalamus helps integrate these feelings into the mind of the person experiencing pleasure.

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Interestingly, researchers found that brain activity in the nucleus accumbens, which runs on dopamine, increased during the arousal phase and peaked at orgasm. Other parts of the brain involved in emotions, problem-solving and impulse control shut down during this time.

Memory

The cingulate gyrus, part of the brain’s limbic system, activates during sexual pleasure and sex. This helps us to differentiate between pleasure and pain. It is also responsible for helping to form and recall memories. During sex, signals are sent streaming along overlapping pain and pleasure pathways. This is why some people experience the dreaded “la petite mort” (the little death), known as postcoital dysphoria, which can cause feelings of guilt, sadness and anxiety.

The good news is that regular romps between the sheets can help to improve our cognitive function, especially as we age. A 2016 study by researchers at Coventry and Oxford Universities found that those who engage in sex weekly score better on tests that measure verbal fluency, word recall, visual fluency and visuospatial ability, or the ability to see objects and judge distances.

For those who are interested in having more conversations about sex with their young adult, our Relationship IQ blog article, Talking about Sex With Your Young Adult, provides helpful tips for engaging in this sometimes uncomfortable topic.