You'll never get more compliments on your skin than when you go into the office after having a rousing morning sex sesh. That postcoital glow is one of the physical health benefits that shows up immediately after the fact and is reinforced over time. And you know that feeling of warmth and safety that we love to call the afterglow? That's a result of all the yummy hormones our bodies release during sex, and in addition to giving us that instant rush of happiness, those chemicals help us sleep better, feel less stressed, and minimize PMS-related mood swings.
Countless studies have quantified the connection between fulfilling romantic relationships and regular sex and both physical health and mental health, but only recently have researchers begun to ask questions about where those benefits are actually being manifested in our bodies.
Let's dig a little deeper. See, we know that telomeres (the protective structures at the end of chromosomes) play a crucial role in health and aging. Longer telomeres prevent disease while shorter telomeres are associated with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, high stress levels, and cell-aging. But longer telomeres aren't the only indicator of health.
The day-to-day wear and tear of living on our cells shortens telomeres over time (a process that is sped up by stress), but organisms have the capacity to ameliorate the degeneration of telomeres by amping up telomerase production. Telomerase is the enzyme produced by cells to lengthen telomeres. So, higher telomerase production suggests a happier, healthier body and mind, even if your telomeres have already shortened due to aging.
So, researchers at U.C.–San Francisco decided to see if maybe the benefits of fulfilling relationships and regular sex came from an impact on telomere length and telomerase production. In a study of 129 partnered women with children, the team isolated these variables into two potential relationships, which they explored individually: the relationship between relationship satisfaction and positive/negative partner interactions with two measures of health (namely, telomere length and telomerase activity), as well as the relationship between sexual intimacy with those same two measures of health.
The findings confirmed the hypothesis that regular sexual intimacy does, in fact, correlate with longer telomeres and higher production of telomerase. (Woo-hoo!) Women who reported being sexually active during the week had significantly longer telomeres than women who weren't. When controlled for relationship quality and perceived stress, the relationship stayed the same. In layman's terms, that means this study, at least, found no correlation between relationship satisfaction and positive/negative partner interactions and telomere length or telomerase production.
It's worth noting that women don't tend to enjoy sex as much when it's with a casual partner as when it's with a committed partner. (Life is so not fair.) Our chances of reaching orgasm diminish by more than half during a one-night stand. So, while you don't have to be in a long-term relationship to enjoy the telomere-boosting effects of sex, you might be in a better position to get them on the regular if you are.
So, what does this discovery mean for our understanding of sex's impact on health?
Tomás Cabeza de Baca, lead researcher on this study, can't wait to ask more questions regarding the role of sexual intimacy in our health, including "hypothesizing how the effects of sexual intimacy may translate to better health, [and examining] the associations of sexual intimacy with health in men."
Want more insight into your relationship? Find out the five things couples who stay together do every day and the ways your sex life can show you what's wrong in your relationship.