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How a healthy sex life can help minimize depression and anxiety symptoms

When you struggle with anxiety or depression, sex may be the last thing on your mind. But understanding the physiological and mental benefits of a healthy sex life can help it become a tool for well-being.

3D visualization of neurons firing neurotransmitters—like serotonin and epinephrine—in the synaptic gap.

Photo: Getty Images
  • The physiological responses our bodies have to sex can minimize the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Deficiencies in nitric oxide are associated with irritability, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and less energy. Having sex increases your body's nitric oxide levels.
  • Sex also increases epinephrine, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, all of which are linked to mood, behavior, and well-being.

Depression can steal your sex drive and leave you feeling the deepest kind of lonely. And yet, sex can not only make you feel connected to another person, but the physical and biological responses our bodies have to sex can actually minimize some of the symptoms of depression.

And then there's anxiety. When you're suffering from anxiety, you feel cornered, lost and stuck; not able to take any steps forward. Sex is the last thing on your mind… and yet again—the physical and biological responses our bodies have to sex can minimize those symptoms, too.

Sex might not be a cure-all (wouldn't it be amazing if it was?) but there is a lot of evidence to prove that sex can have a positive impact on your state of mind, as well as your physical and mental health.

What happens in our bodies during sex

young couple in bed, sex, fun, laughing. From the Netflix film "Someone Great".

Photo: "Someone Great" via Netflix

To explain this in more detail, let's talk about what biologically happens within our bodies when we are aroused and have sexual intercourse. This process begins before you have sex (and continues for a while after you have an orgasm), which is how having a healthy sex life can affect your moods, behaviors, and thoughts.

Arousal provokes activity in the “emotions” area of our brains

MRI studies have shown that the first thing to happen when we are aroused is that there is an increase in activity to the part of the brain that controls your emotions—this is called the limbic system.

During this initial arousal stage, a few physical things happen, as well: our blood pressure and blood flow increases, sensitive areas of our body (such as the genitals and breasts) become tender and our hearts beat faster. In general, arousal acts like an "on" switch for our bodies to prepare us for intercourse.

Sexual intercourse increases our nitric oxide activity, which impacts our anxiety and depression levels

When it comes to having intercourse, there are many complex things happening in our bodies and brains all at once. Along with the increased blood flow that happens when we're aroused, there is also a surge of nitric oxide released in our bodies while we have sex.

Nitric oxide molecules are essential in terms of our blood vessel health because these molecules relax the inner muscles of the blood vessels, which then causes those vessels to widen. This surge in nitric oxide explains why some areas of our bodies are tender during arousal and intercourse, and why our skin may become flushed when we are aroused.

It's important to note that some of the side effects of nitric oxide deficiency (which you can read more about here) are irritability, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and less energy.

People who struggle with nitric oxide deficiency often experience symptoms of anxiety and depression—and the reverse is also true: people who have an influx of nitric oxide (let's say, by having sex) can minimize their symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Sexual intercourse releases dopamine and serotonin, the “balancing chemicals” in our brains

A kiss: A couple, man with brown hair and blonde woman, kissing in bed.

Photo: Getty Images

An influx in nitric oxide isn't the only thing that happens in our bodies when we have sex.

Having sexual intercourse releases some other messages from our brain to our body, as well. These messages are called neurotransmitters.

Dopamine is one of those neurotransmitters, and it plays a huge role in how we feel pleasure. Not only that, but dopamine also plays a role in motivating our brains to feel that pleasure again.

When we have sex, our bodies spread the dopamine chemical along the various major pathways of our brains. This happens during many other pleasurable activities (not just sex), and like a car that's running smoothly until it isn't, you likely won't notice your body is doing this unless there is a problem with how your body carries out that function.

Dopamine deficiency can be linked to depression because our dopamine system is critical in transforming the perception of liking a reward into the motivation to seek out that reward.

Anyone who has struggled with this affliction can tell you that motivation and incentive are extremely difficult to find when you're experiencing depression.

Now, let's talk about serotonin because there is also an influx in serotonin when we have intercourse. Serotonin and dopamine affect many of the same things in our bodies, just in different ways. Both are equally important in regulating various bodily functions like sleep, emotions, and metabolism.

Researchers have been studying and analyzing the link between serotonin and depression for half a century now and while it was originally believed to be as simple as "low serotonin causes depression", the reality is far more complex.

In simple terms, low serotonin isn't a direct cause of clinical depression (as there isn't just one cause and they are extremely difficult to pinpoint due to our complex systems). However, raising your serotonin levels has proven to be one of the most effective depression treatments.

Why? Because serotonin is known to help regulate your mood, social behaviors, emotions, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sex drive. Some of the more prominent symptoms of anxiety and depression include erratic sleep, bad memory, hard-to-manage emotions and mood swings that alter your social behavior.

Taking this information into account, it makes total sense that regulating some of these body functions (by having regular sex and releasing these hormone-balancing chemicals) would help decrease the symptoms of these specific mental health concerns.

Sexual intercourse, epinephrine and the “feeling alive” sensation

We also have to talk about the epinephrine chemical that is released during sexual intercourse. Epinephrine is an adrenaline hormone. This hormone activates our sympathetic nervous system, which makes you feel that "heart pounding in your chest" kind of exhilaration you feel when you're out for a jog, getting a new tattoo or (you guessed it) having sex.

According to Medical News Today, low levels of epinephrine can often result in physical and mental symptoms such as feeling anxious or depressed.

The 2 big “O”s

The "O"s are "orgasm" and "oxytocin". Orgasms, you (hopefully) have when you have sexual intercourse. Oxytocin is the hormone that is released during orgasm.

Known as the 'love hormone', oxytocin is that "let's be together forever" feeling that plays a vital role in our pleasurable climaxes as well as how our body feels after we've reached climax. You get a big dose of oxytocin during an orgasm, but that's not the only time oxytocin makes an appearance. For women, oxytocin is also released during labor and while breastfeeding, which helps create that motherly bond between herself and her newborn baby.

See, oxytocin doesn't just make you feel good, and it's not just about feeling "in love"—but when our bodies experience surges in oxytocin we also begin to feel attachment and trust as a result of this hormone surge.

According to PET scans taken at the moment of orgasm, the reward circuits in our brains light up like fireworks and the center of reasoning and behavior temporarily shut down as you spiral into what can only be described as sexual bliss. You can see a really cool video by Rutgers University of said sexual fireworks shown in the female brain below.

Knowing what we know about anxiety disorders and how easily things are overthought to the point of bringing on a panic attack, that temporary shut off of reasoning can be incredibly helpful for someone who is feeling "stuck" in their own mind.

Given the link between orgasm and oxytocin (and the link between oxytocin and feeling good), it's not a far leap to consider the effect oxytocin released by sex can have on someone who is struggling with an anxiety or depression disorder.

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The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."