Ever since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, many of us became more attentive to our health. It started out by increasing the frequency of hand-washing and sanitizing. Then, we began looking up what foods best support immunity. And along the way, you may have even heard about things that seemed wildly unrelated to immune functioning but might actually play a role.
One of those things? Masturbation.
Can the solo sex act affect immune functioning, and if so, how? We chatted with sexual health experts and functional medicine doctors to find out how masturbation can affect our immunity.
Does masturbation affect immunity?
There isn't sufficient evidence to confirm whether or not masturbation meaningfully affects immunity, but some preliminary research suggests there may be some positive effects.
One small 2004 study found men had a higher white blood cell count1 following orgasm from masturbation, compared to their white blood cell count before orgasm. White blood cells (also called leukocytes) are responsible for finding and attacking bacteria, viruses, parasites, etc., in the body. "These findings demonstrate that components of the innate immune system are activated by sexual arousal and orgasm," the researchers state.
Tierney Lorenz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist studying sexual health and immunity, says masturbation likely does affect immunity, though that may not mean what most people assume it does. "When people ask about immunity, they're often talking about your susceptibility to illness, but the immune system actually does a lot of different things," she tells mbg. "It helps your body recover from wounds, heal after exercise, and in the case of your period, helps it to tear down tissue that's not being used and later build it back up."
When it comes to sexual activity, including masturbation, the part of the immune system that's mainly affected in women is related to reproduction. "The more someone engages in sexual activity and masturbation, the more they will be sending their body the message that reproduction is a priority, and the more the immune system will act in ways that align with that priority," Lorenz explains. In some ways, that's going to be to the person's net benefit since reproductive mechanisms may reduce reactivity to certain autoimmune problems2, she adds.
Benefits of masturbation that may help support immune resilience.
It may support sleep.
Since sleep is critical for immune functioning3, adding masturbation to your nightly routine every now and then may just give you an added bonus. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence and self-reported studies stating that masturbation can help people fall asleep, Lorenz says. One study, published in the Frontiers in Public Health, found that of the participants who masturbated before bed, 48.2% reported better sleep quality4, and 44.7% reported falling asleep more quickly. Of those who reached orgasm from masturbation, more than 50% reported better sleep quality. The effects were the same for both men and women.
"Engaging in safe and satisfying sexual activity (either alone or with a partner), together with other sleep hygiene strategies before attempting sleep, may offer the general adult population a healthy behavioral approach toward improving their subsequent sleep," the study states.
It can help manage stress.
Many people masturbate for stress relief and relaxation, and research has shown orgasms trigger the release of oxytocin, which can, in turn, decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. "We know if you decrease stress levels, your overall well-being and immune system is better," functional medicine doctor and mbg Collective member Amy Shah, M.D., says.
It counts as physical activity.
Staying active lowers stress levels and keeps the body healthy overall so it will be more equipped to defend itself against certain illnesses. Sexual activity alone won't replace the levels of physical activity needed for overall health. But according to functional medicine physician Leah Johansen, M.D., it can certainly contribute to it. When studying healthy couples during sex5, researchers found that men's highest energy expenditure was higher during sex than 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise. "Meaning that they burned more calories during sex than working out," Johansen explains.
Though masturbation is typically less physically demanding than partnered sex, Lorenz notes that it still works in opposition to a sedentary lifestyle, which in and of itself is good for you. So consider masturbation part of your active rest day within your workout schedule.
What are some other ways to support our immune systems?
Along with masturbation, these six immune-supporting habits can also be beneficial:
The bottom line.
Masturbation might not "boost" your immunity—to be honest, you can only support immune functioning. However, it does play a role in the immune system, and when incorporated into a healthy lifestyle, it might contribute to improved sleep, lower stress levels, and increased physical activity. All of which benefit a strong, balanced immune system.
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Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.