A lot is going on in the brain when you have sex
One of the last things you’re thinking about during sex is probably chemicals and your brain—but they’re more involved than you think.
A study on women found that as many as 30 areas of the brain are active leading up to and after orgasm. Still, research on this topic is still developing as it is a challenging topic to measure, test, and study.
Here’s everything researchers know so far about what happens to your brain during sex.
Certain parts of the brain warm up
The limbic system, a more primitive region of the brain responsible for physical drives and elements of emotional processing, activates during sex, according to Jason Krellman, MD, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor of Neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Center.
Other parts of the cerebral cortex that govern higher reasoning, however, shut down.
“As a consequence, the sexual act itself is driven more by instinct and emotion than rational thought,” Dr. Krellman says. Here are 39 more sex facts you probably don’t know.
Your brain releases dopamine
Sex causes the brain to release much higher levels of some neurochemicals, according to Dr. Krellman.
These chemical changes help regulate and pace sexual activities, according to Dr. Prause.
One of these neurotransmitters is dopamine, which promotes feelings of desire, euphoria, satisfaction, and reward, Dr. Krellman says.
Dopamine, a key part of the brain’s reward system, releases in the same part of the brain that activates when people consume certain foods or drugs, according to Mimi Shagaga, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology.
This part of the brain, the hypothalamus, also regulates hunger, thirst, and emotional responses, as well as things like body temperature, Healthline reports.
Your brain releases oxytocin
Oxytocin is a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, which increases with sexual arousal and orgasm. One misconception, however, is that oxytocin encourages bonding between partners post orgasm.
Dr. Prause says there’s no evidence of this in humans. In fact, there’s only some speculative research that women might be more emotionally connected after orgasm thanks to oxytocin and vasopressin (more on that later.)
There’s no current method to measure oxytocin in the brain either, so we don’t know if it actually changes the brain, Dr. Prause says.
What researchers do know is that oxytocin released during sex could have pain-relieving effects, according to Dr. Krellman. This could add to why sexual pleasure and pain are often linked.
Your brain releases serotonin
Serotonin helps regulate mood and sleep, so when people don’t get enough they might feel depressed, Dr. Sweeton says.
Since serotonin increases during sex, it can lead to feelings of happiness and peace post-romp.
Dr. Krellman adds that research shows, under healthy conditions, that sex can boost your mood, reduce stress, and perhaps as a consequence, improve memory.
If you also want to reap as many health benefits from sex as possible, here’s how much sex you should be having.
Your brain releases norepinephrine
Norepinephrine increases arousal, attention, and energy by activating the sympathetic nervous system in the brain, says Clifford Segil, DO, a neurologist in Santa Monica, California.
“The norepinephrine releases to increase our heartbeat and rouse us,” he says.
Many stereotypes of being in love or lust, like a loss of appetite, excess energy, and trouble sleeping, are associated with high concentrations of norepinephrine, too.
Some of these changes might make people sad post-romp
After orgasm, the brain releases the neurochemical prolactin and drops dopamine.
This change post-sex might explain why some people have post-coital dysphoria, or feelings of sadness after sex that are distinct from feelings of regret or loneliness, Dr. Krellman says.
All of these chemical brain changes have a purpose
Not only do chemical changes in the brain make the experience more pleasurable, but they also have evolutionary value, according to Dr. Krellman.
“Sex is vital to our survival as a species, so it makes sense that the act would be rewarding, pleasurable, and make us less vulnerable to physical discomfort that might interrupt the act,” he says.