We all know that sex is good for you. The positive health benefits have been well documented over the years, with plenty of studies suggesting that frequent sex could do wonders for your mental and physical wellbeing. And last week, a new study added to the long list.
Researchers at University College London suggested that women who have sex at least once a week reduce their risk of early menopause. The study, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, was designed to test the theory that women's bodies may stop releasing eggs when the body senses that a woman is no longer likely to get pregnant – for example because she is no longer having sex. Researchers, however, only looked at women in their 40s and 50s.
So what does this mean for younger women who are going through a prolonged spell of no sexual activity? According to a 2016 study, millennials are having less sex than any other generation since the 1920s, and data last year showed that those under 25 and currently single are less likely to be sexually active.
There are many reasons why people may abstain from sex, from asexuality to having a low sex drive or simply choosing not to engage in it. For some, not having sex can be important for their mental health.
But as more and more young people turn their backs on the extracurricular activity, one question remains: Can having less sex – or none at all – damage our health?
The short answer is no, says Dr Leila Frodsham, consultant gynaecologist and spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. "There is widespread evidence of regular sexual activity and health benefits in both sexes, however, there is little clear evidence of harm from not having regular sex," she told Refinery29. "In fact, people with both mental and physical health issues may find sex is more difficult to enjoy and forming sexual relationships is more difficult."
Research does show that having regular sex can result in certain health benefits, such as improved immune system function, reduced blood pressure, lower stress levels and less risk of cardiovascular events. The physiological benefits of sex – such as reduced stress – can also be achieved through masturbation.
"There are numerous benefits to having frequent sex – 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," says Dr Eleanor Draeger, a specialist in genitourinary medicine and spokesperson for the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV. "Orgasms are associated with a release of endorphins and serotonin and can, therefore, help to relieve pain, including menstrual cramps. And one study showed that masturbation could improve migraines.
"Although both sex and masturbation both have health benefits, not doing so is not necessarily unhealthy. And there are other ways to ensure that you are experiencing the same health benefits as those afforded by regular orgasms."
Dr Draeger suggests that you can improve your cardiovascular health by doing another form of exercise, such as running or cycling. Other ways to relieve stress and anxiety include having a hot bath and reading a good book.
She added that while regular orgasms can increase vaginal lubrication and blood flow to the vulval area, as well as increasing your libido, "it does not mean that without orgasm you will inevitably experience vaginal dryness."
Dr Draeger concludes: "It is important to note that it is entirely healthy to want to masturbate, whether you are in a relationship or not, but that does not mean that it is unhealthy if you don’t want to."