Like all things taboo, there are a lot of myths and speculation surrounding masturbation and its effects on the human body.
There’s even a global movement called #nofap, whose followers (mostly men) are abstaining from masturbation in order to reap supposed health benefits, such as enhanced mood, energy, and self-esteem.
While there is still much to learn about how our bodies react to the chemicals and hormones released during sexual release, there are quite a lot of physical and psychological benefits to masturbation, supported by evidence-based science. Most researchers who study sexual health concur that masturbation is a healthy and universal behavior in the human sexual repertoire.
Masturbation releases feel-good hormones that boost your mood
During masturbation, the brain releases a number of hormones, the most important being dopamine. Also known as the “happiness hormone”, dopamine is heavily involved in the brain’s reward system. Along with oxytocin, a hormone that improves social bonding, dopamine also improves mood and satisfaction.
Other hormones that are released during sexual release also include endorphins, testosterone, and prolactin. These have roles in reducing stress, increasing arousal, and boosting immune system function.
However, it’s yet unclear how these ‘feel good’ hormones differ based on the various forms of sexual release involved (sex vs masturbation or sex with a long-term partner vs sex with a short-term partner).
“I don’t think the science can answer this yet. It appears that the same types of hormones are released but I think it would be very hard to ever say whether or not they are always released in the same quantity, ratio, or in the same way, regardless of the method to orgasm,” Heather Armstrong, Lecturer in Sexual Health at the Department of Psychology at the University of Southampton in the UK, told ZME Science.
“In terms of outcomes, I think sex (and masturbation) is so contextual that it’s impossible just to tease out one specific thing (i.e., orgasm) and say that that is the one thing causing good outcomes,” she added.
It alleviates stress and anxiety
During sex, hormones like oxytocin cement pair bonding, which is why it’s also known as the “love hormone”. However, even if you experience sexual release by yourself, the boost of oxytocin is associated with lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and relaxation.
You fall asleep faster
Many are aware that using masturbation before bedtime can ease one’s way into slumber. That’s because serotonin, oxytocin, and norepinephrine are released during sexual arousal and orgasm — and all three of these hormones are associated with reductions in stress and boosts in relaxation, which promote sleep.
Masturbation may improve immune function
The hormones serotonin and norepinephrine are known to boost REM and deep non-REM sleep, during which immune system proteins known as cytokines are released. These proteins identify infections and inflammation, thus enhancing protection against pathogens and disease recovery.
And also eases or prevents pain
Thanks to its immune system enhancing effects, orgasms can also ease chronic pain, which is often linked to poor immune function.
In a 2013 study published in the journal Cephalalgia, researchers found that sexual activity relieves pain caused by migraines or cluster headaches in up to a third of patients.
The authors of the study claim that endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, are released during orgasm thus numbing the pain of migraines.
Masturbation isn’t associated with mental illness
Some believe that masturbation can lead to depression in some cases.
At first glance, this doesn’t sound like a ridiculous idea. Like all sexual matters, masturbation is still a taboo topic even in western societies, which have made great strides in the past century in opening up about sex.
Even so, there are many people who have been socialized in religiously strict households and who might feel anxious or guilty when they masturbate as a result.
A 2018 study found that about 62% of male participants who were diagnosed with clinical depression also experienced some form of sexual dysfunction. Among this group, myths about masturbation were prevalent.
However, there is no evidence that suggests masturbation triggers or amplifies depression symptoms. If anything, masturbation should help ease depression thanks to mood-enhancing hormones released post-orgasm.
Low sex drive is a common symptom of depression, and masturbation might help boost it. A 2015 study found that female masturbation enhances sexual satisfaction, and helped women have more orgasms when they had sex with a partner.
Nevertheless, those who feel guilty and very anxious because they masturbate should see a therapist specialized in sexual health.
Masturbation is actually better than sex (for most women)
Sorry to break it to you, guys, but women generally climax quicker and more easily during masturbation than sex. No reason to feel too bad about it though, because it helps both sexes. A 2014 study showed that 35% of women who regularly had orgasms when they had sex also masturbated compared to only 9% of women who could climax regularly during sex but reportedly did not masturbate. As for heterosexual men, 95% climax regularly during sex, according to a 2017 study, regardless of their masturbation habits.
But although studies indicate that self-pleasuring leads to better and more frequent orgasms in relationships, many women believe that their masturbation habits can be perceived as a threat, or even an insult, to their male partner’s sense of sexual prowess. As such, many women refrain from masturbating while in a relationship or avoid proposing the use of sex toys during heterosexual sex with their partners.
This widely held belief was reported by a recent systematic review of hundreds of scientific papers relating to women’s experiences, motives, and perceptions of masturbation, where Dr. Armstrong is a co-author. The review goes on to highlight the most common reasons why women masturbate, including “as a practical alternative when a sexual partner was not around”, “if a woman did not reach orgasm with a partner”, or “as a tool to enhance partnered sex and partnered intimacy”.
Regarding differences between males and females in the positive outcomes for masturbation, Armstrong said: “There is no consensus on whether or not there are significant brain differences between male and females to begin with. Further, because attitudes toward male vs. female masturbation (both individually and socio-culturally) tend to be quite different, it would be nearly impossible to tease out whether there is a “biological” brain difference, or whether any differences (if there are any) were because of other external factors.”
Is masturbation ever harmful?
Like all things, moderation is key. Excessive masturbation can damage relationships when it becomes the sole outlet of sexual expression. Masturbation can also be physically harmful when people experiment with objects that should have no business near their genitals, nevermind inside them.
“There are very few risks associated with masturbation. Skin irritation may be associated with frequent masturbation if adequate lubrication is not used,” Armstrong said.
There are many myths, however, that claim masturbation can cause prostate cancer (false), is addictive (the American Psychological Association doesn’t recognize masturbation as an addiction), is not safe while pregnant (false), that vibrators cause nerve damage (false), lowers sperm count (false, men don’t have a finite amount of sperm), or lowers testosterone (false — the idea dates from Greek and Roman times, but has no scientific evidence to back it up).
A note on porn
In this day and age, masturbation often goes hand in hand with porn usage. While masturbation, in and of itself, is generally healthy and normal, excessive consumption of video pornography can be associated with some negative effects.
Porn use can hijack the brain’s neural wiring, leading to a surge of unnaturally high levels of dopamine that can damage the reward system. Long-term, frequent use of pornography is also associated with sexual dysfunction, lower levels of marital quality and commitment to one’s romantic partner. Some researchers have gone as far as likening porn use to substance abuse.
“It’s very difficult to separate out porn use from masturbation. Also, there could be differences between porn use without masturbation vs. masturbation without porn use vs. porn use with masturbation without orgasm vs. porn use with masturbation including orgasm. I think the jury’s still out as well on the positive and negative effects of porn use. It appears that for the majority of people, porn use is not problematic. For the minority that do experience problematic porn use, it’s difficult to say whether porn itself leads to problematic use, or if the problematic use is the result (or a side effect) of other factors,” Armstrong said.
Bottom line: Masturbation is a healthy, normal, and very common (universal) form of human sexual behavior. However, sometimes it can have negative effects on mental health if people feel guilty about it, which is why it’s important to normalize it and have conversations about it. Porn use is a different discussion, but in order to reap the full benefits of masturbation, one should stay clear of excessive consumption of pornography.