If you’re right on the edge of an orgasm, the last thing you are probably thinking about—or with—is your brain.
Actually though, there is a lot going on in your brain when you reach a sexual climax. And the reasons orgasms feel good go way behind nerve endings in your genitals.
This might be something you have suspected if you suffer from chronic pain.
There are actually studies which show that sexual activity can bring relief to migraine sufferers, for example.
When you think about that, it is pretty amazing.
Ever wondered about the science behind orgasms? In this article, I will teach you all about the physiological stuff which is going on behind the scenes when you are busy getting off.
What Is An Orgasm?
This may sound like a silly question. If you have had an orgasm, you know what one is. The experience is usually pretty unmistakable.
Actually trying to define an orgasm is difficult though.
Even formal definitions are pretty vague. The NHS for example defines an orgasm as, “a feeling of intense sexual pleasure that happens during sexual activity.”
For that reason, it isn’t really worth spending a lot of time trying to sum up what an orgasm is.
It is better to simply describe what is taking place in the body and brain.
So let’s dive right in…
What Happens During an Orgasm in Your Brain?
Here is a quick version of what is happening when arousal ramps up and you have an orgasm.
- If something turns you on (usually stimulation, though not always), both your limbic system and your amygdala are activated (though the amygdala is later deactivated during orgasm in women). These brain areas are connected to emotion, memory, imagination, aggression, and fear.
- The insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex get turned on as well. These process pleasure as well as pain, and in the presence of both, may have a painkilling effect.
- The cerebellum gets involved as well. This is why your muscles are prone to tensing up as you become more aroused. This may peak during orgasm, which is why some people curl their toes as an involuntary reflex.
- Finally, your nucleus accumbens and hypothalamus get in on the action. At this point, the orgasm occurs, complete with the racing heart, panting, and other familiar sensations and reactions.
Now that you know the process which builds up to an orgasm, we can talk about the hormones and neurotransmitters which are stimulated as a result of one.
Oxytocin is classified as both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. It gets released during an orgasm because it is manufactured in the hypothalamus.
The Society for Endocrinology reports that oxytocin, “acts as a chemical messenger and has been shown to be important in human behaviours including sexual arousal, recognition, trust, anxiety and mother–infant bonding. As a result, oxytocin has been called the ‘love hormone’ or ‘cuddle chemical.’”
Truthfully, a lot more research is needed in this area before we can say with certainty what its effects tend to be, but perhaps this explains why a lot of people like to cuddle after sex.
It might also explain why many people conflate sex with intimacy. If oxytocin is indeed tied to how we experience trust on an emotional level, it makes sense that sex is a shortcut to getting someone to trust you.
Interestingly enough, however, some people with borderline personality disorder may have the opposite experience.
In these people, elevated levels of oxytocin can actually lead to greater mistrust.
Next up is another neurotransmitter. Dopamine also gets stimulated when we have an orgasm.
Dopamine is typically referred to as a “feel good” hormone. In actuality, its role appears to be far more complicated than that.
Basically, dopamine is connected to how we process motivation. A lot of things can spike dopamine: sex, eating, drug use, and so forth.
Some of those things are obviously good for us. We need to eat to survive for example.
Some are bad for us—drugs addiction obviously is not healthy.
And actually, there is research emerging which suggests that chronic pain is connected to an aberration in dopamine as well.
In essence, the body becomes addicted to pain signals from an acute condition, and it then turns into a chronic problem.
Indeed, a lot of people forget that something does not need to be pleasurable to become addicting.
In any case, this may be another reason why sexual activity sometimes combats pain conditions.
In theory, it may be like hijacking back the motivational system which has been hijacked by the pain.
For some people, sex itself can also become addicting. And because it activates our motivational systems, it can lead to more conflations in thoughts and feelings.
For example, you might be motivated to have sex, and find yourself attracted to a girl who wants you to buy her chocolates.
Soon, you feel motivated to buy the chocolates to get more sex. This is a small thing, and only sets you back a few dollars.
Next, she wants romance. Suddenly, you feel motivated to add romance to the mix. After all, romance leads to sex, and sex leads to dopamine.
Soon you may also start finding romance motivating as well, since you have begun to link it positively to the dopamine rush of getting off. It starts to produce positive feelings all on its own. Now you think you’re in love.
The next thing you know, she wants to get married. Suddenly you feel motivated to go out and spend a year’s salary on a ring. After all, you love this woman.
One thing I forgot to mention previously is that some brain regions show less activity during an orgasm.
One of those is the lateral orbitofrontal cortex. This part of your brain helps you think logically and make smart decisions. So not only does sex motivate us, but it also shuts down our smarts.
No wonder it’s so easy to blow a year’s salary on a ring… (joking).
Once sexual interest starts to wear off a few years into a marriage, you might suddenly realize you didn’t have much in common with the girl to begin with.
Your lateral orbitofrontal cortex fully in gear, you file for divorce. You then meet the next guy or girl, and the cycle repeats.
Endorphins are another set of hormones which are released during sexual activity. These hormones have a painkilling effect in the body, which may also help to account for why an orgasm can lead to some relief from certain types of chronic pain.
What goes on in the brain involving serotonin during an orgasm is complicated. As this site explains, “When men or women have an orgasm, the levels of serotonin in one particular part of the brain have to drop quickly – the serotonin has to be ‘re-taken-up.’”
This means that if you are on SSRIs, you may not be able to achieve an orgasm, because that re-uptake is prevented by your medication.
Are Orgasms Good for Your Physical Health?
Well, by now you probably know that masturbation won’t make you go blind. But you may still be wondering when your heart rate shoots through the roof whether orgasms are good for you or not.
Here are some positive effects of orgasms on physical health:
- Reduce the urge to overeat. As bizarre as it sounds, orgasms can help to control appetite. This appears to be the result of the higher amount of oxytocin which circulates in the body after reaching a climax. You can see a relevant animal study here. So if you are trying to lose weight, feel free to make sex a part of your dieting plan!
- Increase testosterone. This study shows that a small boost in testosterone is possible through sexual activity.
- Get to sleep more quickly. A lot of people are aware that sex can make you sleepy. This is not just an imagined effect—it really has a physiological basis, once again tied back to oxytocin.
- Decrease stress. When oxytocin goes up, cortisol goes down. Less stress is good for your body and mind as stress is linked to a number of adverse health conditions.
- Enhanced smell. This is a result of higher levels of prolactin (which otherwise are not necessarily a good thing—see below). After having an orgasm, your sense of smell may be heightened temporarily.
- Relieve pain. As you are now well aware, orgasms can relieve pain through multiple mechanisms. It is worth mentioning that they do not have this effect for all people with all conditions. Some people report that their symptoms worsen with sexual activity. But the results are fantastic for many, and something I can attest to firsthand.
Here are some potentially negative effects of orgasms on physical health:
- An increase in prolactin. The same study which found a small increase in testosterone also found a substantial increase in prolactin. Elevated prolactin is associated with a slew of health problems.
- Fainting. Most people will never experience this, but it is possible to faint from an orgasm. This is something else which I can confirm through personal experience.
- Some men have a disorder which causes them to get sick after having an orgasm. Thankfully, this is rare.
- While sex brings relief to many headache sufferers, some unlucky folks actually have headaches which are triggered by orgasms.
You can see that there are a surprising number of pros and cons when it comes to the physical effects of having an orgasm.
Much depends on your makeup as an individual too. One person may get headaches from orgasms while orgasms treat headaches in another. Someone with low testosterone could benefit from an orgasm while someone with excess testosterone might not, and so on.
Are Orgasms Good for Your Mental Health?
This is a much more subjective question. It would be easy to answer, “Sure. Orgasms release dopamine and other hormones which make you feel good.”
But you already know that dopamine is more complicated than that, and can be tied to addiction.
For that reason, I would assert that whether orgasms are good for one’s mental health depends entirely on the person and the context.
For a person living a healthy, balanced life with a positive sexuality, orgasms probably on the whole are great for increasing psychological and emotional well-being.
For someone who is addicted to sex however to the point of making poor life decisions because of it, orgasms could contribute to mental decline.
It should be noted that researchers are still arguing over whether sex addiction is really a “thing” or not.
Nonetheless, the role of dopamine cannot be overlooked. Sex can certainly become a vehicle for problematic behaviour, whether or not we can classify it as an “addiction” in and of itself.
There is also the whole “sex makes you stupid” issue which arises from the decline in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex.
Thankfully, most people experience orgasms as a positive, and feel that having them regularly contributes to their overall satisfaction in life.
While some people feel depressed after an orgasm, others feel a warm afterglow.
Either way, just try and wait to make important life decisions until your lateral orbitofrontal cortex is fully back online.
Now you have a much better idea what is going on inside your body and brain when you having an orgasm.
Of course, if you think too hard about all this the next time you are having sex, it could be less than conducive to actually achieving a climax.
But it is certainly something interesting to think about as you are coming back down from the rush. And the next time you are masturbating or getting laid, you can feel superb knowing you are treating pain, reducing stress, curbing appetite, and increasing testosterone. You are busy engaging different areas of your brain and stimulating the production of hormones that make you feel awesome, and that is well worthwhile.