How Does Masturbation Affect the Brain?
Any adverse effects associated with masturbation focus on how someone feels or believes about the act itself, rather than the physical implications on the body. Many myths and misconceptions continue to spread the idea that masturbation is somehow harmful to health. However, masturbating may have several health benefits.
Deciding whether to masturbate or not is a personal choice. However, masturbating may have several positive effects, including boosting hormones and chemicals that promote positive emotions, feelings, and sensations.
There are numerous potential health benefits of masturbation.
Hormone and chemical release.
Research shows that masturbation, as well as other sexual activities leading to sexual pleasure or orgasm, trigger the release of hormones and chemicals involved in the brain’s pleasure-reward centre.
- Dopamine: Known as the “happiness” hormone, dopamine is an important neurotransmitter involved in motivation, movement, and reward-seeking.
- Oxytocin: The “love” hormone oxytocin has a wide range of behavioural and physiological effects, such as promoting sexual, social, and maternal behaviours associated with happiness. The hormone also helps support well-being, positive social interaction, growth, and healing.
- Serotonin: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps mediate happiness, optimism, and satisfaction. There is also a link between higher serotonin levels and an increase in mood.
- Endorphins: Endorphins are known as “feel-good” chemicals that reduce pain better than morphine. They are responsible for the pleasurable rush or high associated with exercise.
- Prolactin: Prolactin is a hormone that promotes physiological responses to the reproduction, stress management, and emotional regulation.
- Endocannabinoids: These neurotransmitters are vital to rewarding behaviours such as exercise, social interaction, and eating. They also help regulate processes such as pain, inflammation, metabolism, cardiovascular function, learning and memory, anxiety, depression, and addiction.
- Norepinephrine/noradrenalin: This is a stimulating neurotransmitter that increases and regulates dopamine transmission, a substance linked to levels of happiness.
- Adrenaline: Adrenaline lowers stress by helping regulate heart rate, blood vessel and airway diameters, and aspects of metabolism.
Release of these various hormones can, in turn, lead to the following health benefits:
- Reduced stress and anxiety
The release of oxytocin from sexual activities seems to lower stress hormones, such as cortisol while promoting relaxation. Prolactin also helps regulate stress responses.
- Improve sleep
Masturbation releases hormones and neurotransmitters to help reduce stress and blood pressure while promoting relaxation, which may make it easier to fall asleep. A 2019 study that surveyed 778 adults found there was a clear perception of favourable sleep outcomes associated with orgasm. Many respondents felt masturbation helped reduce the time it took to fall asleep and improved their sleep quality. Many are aware that using masturbation before bedtime can ease one’s way into slumber. That’s because serotonin, oxytocin, and norepinephrine are released during sexual arousal and orgasm — and all three of these hormones are associated with reductions in stress and boosts in relaxation, which promotes sleep.
- Reduced pain
Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. Endocannabinoids are also known to help regulate pain and inflammation processes. These natural painkillers could also help ease menstrual pain. A 2013 study found that sexual activity leads to partial or complete relief of migraines and some cluster headaches.
- Improved immune function
Masturbation raises levels of prolactin and endocannabinoids, which help regulate the immune system. It also boosts the hormones and neurotransmitters that lower stress.
The hormones serotonin and norepinephrine are known to boost REM and deep non-REM sleep, during which immune system proteins known as cytokines are released. These proteins identify infections and inflammation, thus enhancing protection against pathogens and disease recovery.
- Improved mood
Masturbation may increase hormone levels associated with a positive mood, such as dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins.
- Improve focus and concentration
By increasing levels of hormones and neurotransmitters involved in learning, memory, and motivation, masturbation may improve focus and concentration. A 2020 study found that medications used to improve focus and concentration, such as Ritalin, may work by increasing circulating dopamine levels and increasing motivation to complete difficult tasks.
- It alleviates stress and anxiety
During sex, hormones like oxytocin cement pair bonding, which is why it’s also known as the “love hormone”. However, even if you experience sexual release by yourself, the boost of oxytocin is associated with lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and relaxation.
- Improve self-esteem
Masturbation can raise adrenaline levels. Researchers associate higher levels of salivary and urinary adrenaline with higher levels of personal growth produces a sense of life purpose. Learning how to pleasure oneself can also be empowering and improve body image.
- Improve sexual function
Many of the hormones and neurotransmitters involved in the human sexual response cycle help regulate the cycle themselves by promoting the release of stimulating compounds at higher levels.
- Improved cognition
Prolactin has a neuroprotective effect, reducing neural damage in response to stress. Dopamine also seems to contribute to healthy cognition. A 2016 study found that sexual activity increased recall and number sequencing in older males and recall in older females aged 50–89.
- Reduced blood pressure
Oxytocin and endocannabinoids may also help reduce blood pressure.
Adverse effects on the brain
While most people experience positive effects from masturbating, this is not true for everyone. Some may be morally or religiously opposed to masturbation and feel guilty or shameful for engaging in masturbation or even thinking about it.
Excessive masturbation can also cause physical problems such as irritated or broken skin, swelling of the genitals, and cramps. Masturbation is also tricky for some people to engage in positively, especially in those with sexual dysfunction or a history of abuse. These people may find it very embarrassing or even distressing to engage in masturbation.
When excessive masturbation starts to interfere with daily life, psychological well-being, or physical health, ask a therapist for help. People should also consider seeking professional help if feelings of guilt, shame, or other negative emotions interfere with sexual functioning, pleasure, or relationships.
Masturbation is actually better than sex (for most women)
Sorry to break it to you, guys, but women generally climax quicker and more efficiently during masturbation than sex—no reason to feel too bad about it though, because it helps both sexes. A 2014 study showed that 35% of women who regularly had orgasms when they had sex also masturbated compared to only 9% of women who could climax periodically during sex but reportedly did not masturbate.
But although studies indicate that self-pleasuring leads to better and more frequent orgasms in relationships, many women believe that their masturbation habits can be perceived as a threat, or even an insult, to their male partner’s sense of sexual prowess. As such, many women, unfortunately, refrain from masturbating while in a relationship.
This widely held belief was reported by a recent systematic review of hundreds of scientific papers relating to women’s experiences, motives, and perceptions of masturbation, where Dr Armstrong is a co-author.
Masturbation is a normal and widespread form of human sexual behaviour. However, sometimes it can have adverse effects on mental health if people feel guilty about it, which is why it’s important to normalize it and have conversations about it.
Masturbation is generally a healthy, risk-free way to engage in sexual activity. It could also allow a person to learn about personal likes or dislikes. It may even improve elements of health, sleep and well-being, such as happiness, relaxation, self-esteem, and body image.
By Jennifer Huizen and reviewed by Janet Brito, Ph.D., LCSW, CST (certified sex therapist)