Does Sex Really Boost Immunity?

Photographed by Karen Sofia Colon.
If you're lucky enough to have been locked up inside with a quaran-partner during the last few weeks, you may have been having more sex than usual. And why not? It's fun, it reduces stress, it gets your heart pumping — all things we need to combat the boredom, anxiety, and sluggishness that can come with being cooped up inside. But one thing sex may not be able to do is keep you from getting sick.
That's right. While sex's supposed positive effects on your immune system is widely reported, the actual research tells a slightly more complicated story.
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It's true that some research has shown that people who say they have frequent sex — once or twice a week — have higher levels of immunoglobulin, molecules produced by white blood cells that are a critical part of the immune response, according to a study published in Psychological Reports. The authors didn't look into why that might be. But it could be related to the physical activity; other research has found that exercise can increase immunoglobulin levels.
But the same study found that people who said they had sex even more often didn't experience the same immunoglobulin boost. The study authors suggested that these ultra-amorous couples may be trying overcompensate for anxieties about their relationship, and that kind of stress can suppress the immune system.
Other research seems to indicate that masturbation has benefits as well. Researchers found that the white blood cell count of 11 men rose after they orgasmed, according to a small study from the Department of Medical Psychology at the University Clinic of Essen, Germany.
But before you grab your vibrator — these changes aren't necessarily significant or long-lasting enough to stave off a cold, the flu, or a rogue virus. "There have been a couple of very small studies suggesting that chemicals related to the body’s immune system are impacted by sexual stimulation,” Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, previously told HealthBut, she continued, “To my knowledge, no study says specifically that masturbation [or sex] boosts the immune system in a way that prevents or helps fight off infection."
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Okay, so getting busy probably isn't going to help you avoid the sniffles. But you can still feel good about having sex, says Eleanor Draeger, a specialist in genitourinary medicine and a spokesperson for the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV. "It counts as exercise, and improves your cardiovascular health and reduces your blood pressure. Regular sex can also strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, which could help with bladder control," Draeger previously told Refinery29.
"Orgasms are associated with a release of endorphins and serotonin and can, therefore, help to relieve pain, including menstrual cramps," she added. Draeger even points out that one study even shows that masturbation could improve migraines.
Sex is also proven to improve sleep. It helps people relax, and that can even let insomniacs snooze a little more deeply, according to a study from the University of Ottawa. (Of course, studies have linked better ZZZs to a decreased risk of getting sick, so maybe sex does have a small indirect effect on your immune system.)
Oh, and if you're not having frequent sex — don't sweat it. There isn't any evidence that a dry spell has a negative effect on your physical wellbeing.
But it you're looking to shore up your immunity, stick to the stuff that's proven to help: Eat vitamin C-rich foods, wash your hands often, get regular exercise... and have sex because it's fun, not because you're scared of germs.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
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