Love is not just a vague condition of the soul or a topic of debate among philosophers and poets. Love has powerful, tangible effects on the physical body as well. Love and attraction can affect every part of the body, and sexual activity only further heightens the phenomenon.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we delved into the physical mechanics of love and sex and examined how they can affect the brain, heart and sexual organs.

The brain

Love and sex cause a firestorm of neurological reactions in the brain that ripple throughout the body. When people experience amorous feelings, key parts of the brain light up and feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, adrenaline, oxytocin and norepinephrine are released.

Love also can increase blood flow to the “pleasure center” of the brain, which can increase feelings of euphoria and suppress impulses.

The pleasure center is engaged similarly in the brains of people in love as it is in the brains of people addicted to drugs, so the adage that “love is a drug” may have some validity. That also is part of the reason love can cause obsessive thoughts and feelings of anxiety.

Scientists have identified three phases of love:

  • Lust: Lust is driven primarily by hormones that cause feelings of desire.
  • Attraction: The pleasure center of the brain is activated, which makes people feel preoccupied by, or even fixated on, their beloved.
  • Attachment: This phase kicks in once the body starts to develop a tolerance to the feel-good chemical reactions triggered during the lust and attraction phases. During the attachment phase, endorphins and oxytocin flood the brain, which contributes to deeper partner bonding and a sense of wellbeing.

The heart

The heart is a universal image of love, but the effects of love and sex on the heart extend far beyond Valentine’s Day greeting cards. Just as love itself is wrought with ups and downs, the heart can be affected by love in both positive and negative ways.

Good impacts

The feel-good chemicals that are released in the brain when someone is in love can benefit the heart. The chemicals can decrease blood pressure and contribute to lowered stress levels.

“Studies say that people who have a good love life and a healthy sex life have less stress and an overall sense of happiness, which is very good for the heart,” Nayab Zafar, MD, a cardiologist at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center said.

Bad impacts

For people who are healthy overall, sex can contribute further to physical wellness, but for people with heart conditions, sex can be damaging.

“Sexual activity increases risks for patients who have diagnosed, or undiagnosed, heart conditions,” Zafar said. “Sex can even trigger heart attacks for these people because of the sudden increase in vigorous physical activity and the flood of adrenaline and increased oxygen demand caused by orgasm.”

Patients who have a history of heart disease should speak openly with their doctor about their sexual practices to help ensure that sex won’t cause further problems.

Did you know?

Erectile dysfunction can be an early indicator of heart disease, said Zafar. “Erectile dysfunction can be a vascular problem, so men who are otherwise healthy but experiencing erectile dysfunction should see a cardiac specialist to make sure it’s not an indicator of a larger issue.”

Sexual organs

For consenting adults, great sex should be a staple of any loving relationship. The chemicals released during sex are good for the body and mind, and can help forge deeper bonds between you and your partner. Unfortunately, there are risks that come with sexual activity, from STDs to unplanned pregnancy to unintended physical and psychological effects. Taking precautions to limit the risks are necessary.

“The most common urological conditions that we see with both men and women after sex are STDs, with HPV being the most common in the United States,” Jayram Krishnan, DO, a urologist at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center said. To prevent STDs, Krishnan recommends always practicing safe sex and doing so with trusted partners.

Male and female impotence

Sexual dysfunction is common for men and women of all ages. Though the symptoms and causes of sexual dysfunction vary between men and women, sexual dysfunction occurs when there is a physical problem that prevents sex from taking place or prevents sexual satisfaction for either partner.

Speaking of...

Viagra didn’t start as a sexual enhancement drug. Viagra was created to treat high blood pressure and angina, but it was remarketed once it was discovered to be a powerful treatment for erectile dysfunction.

“For the most part, Viagra can be beneficial for healthy people, though for patients with some heart diseases, Viagra can lower their blood pressure too much, which can cause problems,” Zafar said.

How to have a better sex life

To maximize your chances of having the best sex possible, focusing on your overall health is key. Exercising regularly improves circulation and physical stamina, eating a healthy diet can help prevent disease, and keeping well hydrated can help cellular function and promote cell turnover.

Another necessary component to a great sex life? Not smoking. “Smoking is one of the worst things anyone can do for their libido and is a major cause of erectile dysfunction,” said Krishnan. Smoking damages blood vessels, reduces circulation and can cause infertility.

Source: Loyola University Health System, McGill University

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