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Sexual activity might help protect mothers from the effects of chronic stress on metabolic health

A new study suggests that sexual activity could help protect individuals from the metabolic consequences of chronic stress. The research, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, examined the stress-buffering effects of sexual activity in mothers caring for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The findings indicate that sexually active mothers had healthier levels of key metabolic hormones compared to their sexually inactive counterparts.

Chronic stress is known to cause significant changes in the brain and body, leading to various health issues, including disruptions in metabolic regulation. This can result in long-term problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. Previous research has indicated that physical activity can help mitigate these effects.

However, the role of other lifestyle factors, such as sexual activity, has been less explored. Given the strong stress-relieving effects of sexual activity, researchers aimed to investigate whether it could serve as a buffer against the negative metabolic impacts of chronic stress.

“Considering the deleterious consequences chronic stress can have on metabolic health, it’s crucial to explore protective factors. As a relationship researcher, I am particularly interested in how various aspects of our relational experiences might serve such a protective role,” explained study author Yoobin Park, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Sexual activity emerged as a promising candidate due to its stress-relieving effects and its positive impact on processes such as sleep, which can suffer due to stress and in turn cause metabolic problems. To our knowledge, no previous work has examined whether sexual activity can buffer the biological effects of stress, so this research was exploratory in nature, aiming to fill that gap.”

The researchers focused on mothers of children with ASD, who experience higher levels of chronic stress compared to mothers of typically developing children. The study included 183 women aged 20 to 50, with at least one child between the ages of 2 and 16. These women were divided into high-stress and low-stress groups based on whether they had a child diagnosed with ASD and their scores on the Perceived Stress Scale.

Participants underwent assessments at four different time points: baseline, 9 months, 18 months, and 24 months. During these assessments, participants completed clinic visits and 7-day diary studies. The researchers focused on data from the 18-month and 24-month follow-ups, as these were the only time points that included questions about sexual activity.

Sexual activity was measured by asking participants daily if they had engaged in sexual relations the night before. Those who reported sexual activity at least once during each diary period were considered sexually active. The final analysis included 101 participants who were consistently sexually active or inactive across the study weeks.

The study measured several key metabolic indicators, including insulin, insulin resistance, leptin, and ghrelin. Blood samples were collected during fasting morning visits to assess these hormones. Additionally, the researchers considered other variables such as physical activity and relationship satisfaction to see if they overlapped with the effects of sexual activity.

The findings showed significant differences in metabolic health between high-stress and low-stress mothers. High-stress mothers had higher levels of insulin and insulin resistance and lower levels of ghrelin compared to low-stress mothers. However, these differences were notably influenced by sexual activity.

Among sexually inactive mothers, the high-stress group showed much worse metabolic outcomes than the low-stress group. In contrast, sexually active mothers did not exhibit significant differences in their metabolic profiles based on their stress levels. This suggests that sexual activity might mitigate the adverse metabolic effects of chronic stress, helping maintain healthier insulin and ghrelin levels.

The researchers also examined the potential overlap of these effects with physical activity and relationship satisfaction. Vigorous exercise was found to have similar stress-buffering effects on insulin and insulin resistance, but light and moderate exercise did not show these benefits. Relationship satisfaction, on the other hand, did not significantly influence the metabolic outcomes, underscoring the unique role of sexual activity in this context.

“In a nutshell, our findings suggest that the stress-related detriments in metabolic health were significantly reduced among those who were sexually active,” Park told PsyPost. “This raises two important questions: a) whether these benefits are due to the broader advantages of being physically active, given that sexual activity involves moderate energy expenditure, and b) whether they reflect the general benefits of having a good relationship.”

“Regarding (a), we also asked participants about their daily physical activity and tested it as a potential buffer. Our results showed that while physical activity did have similar buffering effects, these effects were independent of the benefits from sexual activity. Regarding (b), although people who were highly satisfied in their relationships were indeed more likely to be sexually active, overall relationship satisfaction (measured as a daily average) did not emerge as a significant buffer against stress-related detriments, unlike sexual activity.”

“So overall, although we need more research to understand the precise mechanisms by which sexual activity protects against the stress-related detriments in metabolic health, our findings suggest that the benefits of being sexually active go beyond just being generally active or being in a happy relationship,” Park explained.

While the study provides evidence for the stress-buffering effects of sexual activity, it also has several limitations. The assessment of sexual activity was binary and did not account for the diversity of sexual experiences. Future research should use more detailed measures to capture the nuances of sexual activities and their varying effects on stress and metabolism.

“It’s important that we looked at a specific type of chronic stress (maternal caregiving stress) and specific health outcomes (metabolic hormones),” Park noted. “We need more research in this area to gain deeper insights into the mechanisms underlying the benefits of sex and to understand the generalizability of its protective effects.”

The study, “Maternal caregiving stress and metabolic health: Sexual activity as a potential buffer,” was authored by Yoobin Park, Michael A. Coccia, Aric A. Prather, and Elissa S. Epel.

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