By now, it’s a truth many women know well: Sex has not only the potential to be wildly pleasurable, but supportive of our well-being, too. But what about the effects of not having sex? That, we know less about—and is exactly why we’re diving deep into that question today.
For all the fantastic stories about how regularly engaging in sex can cut cortisol levels, improve sleep, decrease pain, and improve immunity, I’m occasionally left wondering about the effects of a break in regularity—aka a dreaded “dry spell.” So it was refreshing to stumble on this Well+Good article tackling just that: “This Is What Happens to Your Body When You Stop Having Sex.”
Lauren Zielinski is a certified nurse-midwife with over 11 years of experience in women’s health and birth. She studied medicine at The University of Colorado-Denver with a focus on community health and birth center work.
Understanding the Effects of Not Having Sex
As a woman whose entire pre-college education was at Catholic schools, any and all sex-positive literature, podcasts, and beyond have been a beacon to me in my adult life. There was so much I appreciated about the Catholic school environment, but shedding the veil of shame around certain acts, particularly sexual ones, has been a valuable personal process, one aided by the idea that sexual health is about more than avoiding diseases and unplanned pregnancies. It’s also recognizing that sex should be an important and beneficial part of life.
Read on for some of the most notable discoveries, as well as insights from our team’s resident health and wellness expert, certified nurse midwife Lauren Zielinski (MSN, CNM), for those looking to break a dry spell.
Blood Pressure and Stress Levels May Increase
In this case, what goes down eventually must come up—especially if you’re not getting the regular endorphin release sex provides. Fortunately, there are other active ways to achieve similar results. Consider substituting healthy, heart-pumping exercise for sessions between the sheets.
If stress continues to plague you, consider Zielinski’s advice: “If you’re feeling really overwhelmed, insanely busy, and are never in the mood for sex and want to change that, then it’s time to activate your self-care defense mode. Consider dropping one or two commitments or activities that aren’t crucial, penciling in “me time” on your calendar, and remembering that it’s okay to say no to things. Take time to relax and take care of yourself.”
For Those Going Through Menopause, the Vaginal Canal Can Tighten
As if menopause wasn’t fun enough, now you have to worry about the state of your vaginal canal. Board-certified OB/GYN Lucky Sekhon, MD, explained to Well+Good that when there are long periods without regular sex, the vaginal canal can tighten, “which can lead to thinning of vaginal tissue and predisposition towards tearing [and] bleeding during sex.”
This statement echoes an idea I heard last month during a call with Dr. Macrene Alexiades on the subject of upcoming beauty and wellness trends. Though she expects great strides ahead in terms of vaginal rejuvenation, she also stressed that the best way to maintain the vaginal lining is to have sex or masturbate regularly.
And since the myth that painful sex is totally normal is something we’d like to leave in the past, consider a natural lubricant if things are feeling less than comfortable.
It May Become Harder to Get Turned On
Like so many things, the desire for sex generally follows the rules of inertia: a person having sex will continue to desire sex, while a person not having sex may no longer have that need. “For some, this will have the effect that it becomes harder to get turned on, even if you want to,” sexologist Carol Queen, PhD shared with Well+Good.
That might sound a little scary, but the main takeaway from this small 2014 study published in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality is that the desire for sex can affect the quality of sex. Maintaining a love and longing for regular sex can be crucial to the overall experience.
Let’s Talk (More) About Sex
There are a wide variety of reasons—all perfectly normal—why we might go through a dry spell. Some people also never experience sexual arousal at all. But if you feel you’re in a rut you’d like to get out of, consider Zielinski’s guide to boosting your libido. (Expect a few surprising ideas.) And consider her thoughts on when to try sex therapy, and even meditating before sex.
This post was originally published on February 15, 2022, and has since been updated.