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Too Tired to Have Sex? All the More Reason to Make Time for It

February 19, 2001|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sure, you're tired; so is your mate. The two of you lie in bed next to each other: two islands enveloped in a cloud of fatigue. The garden-variety battles of putting children to bed, managing job stress, paying bills and squeezing in housework circle your head like a swarm of locusts. The very last thing either of you feels like doing is reaching over and starting something you'll have to finish.

But sex, as unlikely as it seems, is the equivalent of the body's natural amphetamine. Sexual activity energizes the body, woos the nervous system into a state of relaxation and has a salutary effect physically and psychologically. And, as a bonus, a little goes a long way (as one friend put it: "It only takes a few minutes"). And it's more fun than doing sit-ups.

"If you have vigorous sex, it is like exercising," said Stanley Korenman, a reproductive endocrinologist at UCLA. "You get secretion of a lot of hormones--including cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine, which produce fight-or-flight responses in the body. After the stimulus is underway, natural morphine-like hormones, the beta-endorphins, are also secreted."

The role of orgasm is important because it activates the pleasure center of the brain, said Korenman, "contributing to the natural relaxation of sex." The pleasure principle kicks in: a feel-good memory is created making one want to have sex again, hypothesized Korenman.

And the benefits may not stop there. Paul Pearsall, a neuro-psychologist and former director of education at the Kinsey Institute for Research into Sex, Gender and Reproduction, said sexual intimacy appears to be good for the immune system.

Studies show that men and women who reported the highest frequency of orgasm have fewer illnesses, he said. At a Detroit psychiatric clinic where Pearsall was the director in the 1980s, patients being treated for marital and sexual problems reported having less severe migraine headaches; women reported fewer and less severe symptoms of premenstrual syndrome; and both genders reported reduction in symptoms related to chronic arthritis as sexual activity increased.

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"The relief of orgasm and the benefit of connection seems to somehow balance the immune system," theorized Pearsall, author of numerous books about the effects of intimacy and relationships. But physical intimacy is good, even if it does not lead to orgasm. "I would say even mediocre sex is better than no sex," said Debra Waterhouse, a San Francisco nutritionist and the author of "Outsmarting Female Fatigue" (Hyperion, 2001), a book that offers strategies for increasing energy and vitality.

Waterhouse said that according to two different national surveys, 80% of American women complain of being fatigued at any given time. In a 1999 Journal of American Medical Assn. study, 43% of women reported having unsatisfying sex lives and the majority of those women who were dissatisfied reported the cause was stress and fatigue.

"If women only knew how sex reduces stress and increases energy, they would be more apt to do it," Waterhouse said. "Sex is not a cure-all but it helps," she said, adding that according to the Touch Institute at the University of Miami, women have 10 times the number of touch receptors as men. "So any kind of intimacy not only feels good, but it also energizes you and releases feel-good chemicals in the brain."

Other research has found that during sexual arousal and orgasm, men and women experience a spike in a neuropeptide called oxytocin, a hormone that induces a state of pleasure and elicits feelings of satiation. According to one study, women have higher levels of oxytocin during sex than do men. But oxytocin--sometimes called the attachment hormone--is released during any interpersonal contact (breast-feeding, hugging, massage and sexual intercourse), evoking a powerful urge to cuddle, bond and touch.

Of course, no one suggests people force themselves to have sex with a partner if there is illness, extreme exhaustion or serious relationship problems. Certainly, healthier people have more sex than less healthy people.

People who exercise regularly reportedly have more satisfying sex, said Hank C.K. Wuh, a surgeon, public-health expert and coauthor of "Sexual Fitness," (G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2001). That is partly because exercise stimulates sex hormones, said Wuh, and partly because people who exercise more tend to watch what they eat and feel better. Wuh advises people to think of their sexual potential as something that can be primed, fine-tuned and harnessed. (Like a team of Clydesdales.)

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"Fatigue and stress are the most common reasons for loss of libido for men and women," said Wuh, whose book details a 30-day diet, exercise and lifestyle program aimed at priming the body and mind for better sex.

"It becomes a vicious cycle and then the last thing people want to think about is sex," Wuh said. "But like cardiovascular fitness, sexual fitness is something that we can take control of to empower ourselves and to optimize our sexual life."

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