Haven't Had Sex in a While? How Lack of Sex Can Affect Your Health

Not having sex may affect your mental and physical health, but you can also live a happy and healthy sex-free life.

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Different seasons of life can lead to dry spells in your sex life, or maybe you've decided to take a break from sex. Either way, not having sex for extended periods may affect your mental and physical health.

Having sex regularly is related to health benefits like reducing stress and improving heart health (Brody, 2010). However, having specific amounts of sex doesn't necessarily lead to a happier or healthier life. Folks who don't have sex also don't necessarily experience health problems related to celibacy or abstinence.

So what really happens to your body – including the vagina or penis – when you stop having sex? Here's what can happen to your body if you haven't had sex for a while.

Anxiety or Stress Might Set In

Having sex releases feel-good brain chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin, says Gail Saltz, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. During an orgasm, your body releases oxytocin (aka the "love hormone") and gives you that euphoric boost in mood and a sense of emotional bonding (Lee, 2009). This chemical is also linked to lower feelings of stress or anxiety (Schneider, 2021).

When you haven't had sex for a while, your body may stop producing its typical amount of feel-good chemicals. This could take a toll on your mental health, making you feel more anxious or stressed.

However, not everyone who stops having sex will experience this effect. Other forms of physical touch – like hugging or cuddling – will also give you boosts of oxytocin. (Lee, 2009). And, these other forms of intimacy don't have to be sexual or romantic for oxytocin to do its feel-good thing.

If you notice your mood takes a hit from lack of sex, having orgasms via masturbation can also help you get additional oxytocin and serotonin, adds Dr. Saltz.

The Vagina May Become Dry and Thin

Lack of sex will never cause the vagina to close up. But people going through menopause can experience more vaginal dryness and a tightened vaginal canal if they stop having sex for long periods of time. During menopause, the body produces less estrogen. This can make vaginal tissue feel dry and thin, also known as vaginal atrophy (Bleibel, 2022). Not having sex may make vaginal atrophy worse. This is because sex helps the vagina create more lubrication and moves blood to the sex organs to help keep tissues plump.

"Over time, postmenopausal women who have a diminished supply of estrogen might notice the diameter of the vagina becoming smaller if they aren't engaging in intercourse," adds Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn based in Florida. "But in my clinical experience, this usually only happens after about five [sex-free] years or more."

However, you don't need to have partnered sex to add more lubrication and keep vaginal tissue healthy. Masturbation can also create arousal that leads to increased moisture.

Your Sex Drive May Take a Hit

According to Dr. Greves, a period of abstinence can decrease your libido. Not having regular sex may halt those spontaneous feelings of arousal and feel-good chemicals that make you want to have sex.

But, lack of sex won't make your sex drive disappear. Once you're back in action, you'll likely start feeling your libido rise. That's because having sex can start to refuel your desire for more sex. A small 2014 study found men and women desired more sex the day after having intercourse. Plus, that increased need for sex made future sexual experiences more enjoyable (Mark, 2014).

You May Crave Human Touch

During sex, direct skin-to-skin touch and orgasm help emotional bonding thanks to releasing that feel-good chemical oxytocin (Lee, 2009). Without this intimate contact, you could start dealing with "skin hunger" or "touch starvation." Also known as affection deprivation, this reaction makes people crave affection through physical touch due to a lack of skin-to-skin contact (Hesse, 2021).

However, touch starvation doesn't just happen from lack of sex. Folks can feel deprived of non-sexual affection if they have no physical contact with social circles like friends and family members (Hesse, 2021). If you're still able to satisfy some physical touch needs via hugs and close contact with your platonic relationships, you may not feel deprived of human affection from lack of sex.

Lack of touch – via no sex or no physical contact – can also make you more likely to get sick and feel upset. "Skin-to-skin contact can decrease stress and improve self-esteem, potentially even boosting our immune system," says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York. Dr. Nazarian adds that your skin interprets positive touch to boost serotonin levels, making you more likely to feel happy and healthy. Without that extra touch from lack of sex, you may feel moody and find yourself getting sick more often.

It Might Take Longer To Get Aroused When You Do Have Sex Again

After a sex break, "it may take more time for the vagina to get sufficiently lubricated or for the tissues to fully relax," says Dr. Greves. When you have sex regularly, the vagina goes into arousal mode automatically. But if you've paused your sexual activities, it can take some extra stimulation to help your body create lubrication and relax during sex.

It may also take additional time for the penis to become erect after a sex pause. While not a proven cause, there is a link between having less sex and an increased risk of erectile dysfunction (Koskimäki, 2008).

So if you're ready to resume your partnered sexual activities, try going slow and enjoy lots of foreplay to help you get into the mood. If you have a vagina, using a lubricant can help if it's difficult to become fully aroused. This can make a return to sex more comfortable.

Sources

  1. Bleibel B, Nguyen H. Vaginal Atrophy. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; July 4, 2022.
  2. Brody S. The relative health benefits of different sexual activities. J Sex Med. 2010;7(4 Pt 1):1336-1361. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01677.x
  3. Hesse C, Mikkelson A, Tian X. Affection deprivation during the COVID-19 pandemic: A panel study. J Soc Pers Relat. 2021;28(10):2965-2984. Doi: 10.1177/02654075211046587
  4. Koskimäki J, Shiri R, Tammela T, Häkkinen J, Hakama M, Auvinen A. Regular intercourse protects against erectile dysfunction: Tampere Aging Male Urologic Study. Am J Med. 2008;121(7):592-596. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2008.02.042
  5. Lee HJ, Macbeth AH, Pagani JH, Young WS 3rd. Oxytocin: the great facilitator of life. Prog Neurobiol. 2009;88(2):127-151. doi:10.1016/j.pneurobio.2009.04.001
  6. Mark K. The impact of daily sexual desire and daily sexual desire discrepancy on the quality of the sexual experience in couples. Can J Hum Sex. 2014;23(1): 27-33. doi: 10.3138/cjhs.23.1.A2
  7. Schneider E, Müller LE, Ditzen B, Herpertz SC, Bertsch K. Oxytocin and social anxiety: Interactions with sex hormones. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2021;128:105224. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2021.105224
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