What’s that – you’re too tired? Got a headache? Just not in the mood? Would you say the same thing for a workout and bail on that activity too? Just as a proper diet, restful sleep, and adequate exercise are necessary for optimal health and athletic performance, so is sexual activity. Hopefully you’re not following the ABC (Anniversary, Birthday, Christmas), Sex-Calendar just as you wouldn’t, and shouldn’t be, exercising so few times a year. Please dim the lights, queue Lionel Richie, (or whatever you’re into), and read on to learn about sex and athletic performance.
Stress and Sex: Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic
Training properly has so much to do with adaptation. You’re trying to stress the body just enough but not too much, whether you’re running, jumping, lifting, or performing a complexity of all three. Stressing the body induces more sympathetic stress to the nervous system – that’s the “fight or flight” system. Rest and recovery are more parasympathetic. Recovery means sleep as well as active recovery, such as an aerobic workout, (walk or easy run), or light mobility exercises. If you do too much of either one then you’ll create an imbalance in your nervous system, and this imbalance will reveal itself when you’re ready to put on the sexy time.
When it comes to sex, parasympathetic tone is important for the arousal state. No need to get into specifics for each gender here; you hopefully get the picture. If your body is too sympathetic dominant then you will most likely not be able to get aroused or sustain that arousal because your body is focused elsewhere. Sympathetic dominance basically occurs when your body is under way too much stress. Perhaps your work or life is an emotional burden, or your diet is very unhealthy, or you train way too hard, or you have injuries and pain you’re dealing with. These would all contribute to sympathetic excess and you’re just not going to be very successful getting in the mood and if you are it’s going to be a short session. Set the egg timer.
The sympathetic system is more important for the ever-awesome orgasm, though essentially it’s a balance between the two systems of your autonomic nervous system. Yeah, if you just can’t achieve an orgasm then it could be because you’re too parasympathetic-dominant and it’s overriding the sympathetic system, or that you can’t muster up the sympathetic tone to finish the job. Basically your nervous system just can’t chill-out and let the good times roll. This autonomic nervous system dysfunction, much like conditioning for your sport, means you’re training improperly. This has to do with the balance of aerobic and anaerobic conditioning.
Despite all the claims that high intensity interval training is the only way to go, excessive HIIT workouts won’t make you a god or goddess in the sack. Aerobic conditioning is necessary for a healthy libido and sexual activity. No, that doesn’t mean you need to be performing an ultra endurance race in bed for hours, (the ladies really don’t like that anyway from what I’m told), but the aerobic system will keep the parts working properly in a sustainable fashion for as long as you’d like them to. And it’s not just about time – but enjoyment of course.
So for the guy who can’t sustain an erection for very long or the woman who loses lubrication too quickly, consider some more aerobic conditioning and an aerobic lifestyle. This means reducing your stress levels and improving your diet, which, along with proper exercise, will help provide the necessary sympathetic and parasympathetic tone.
No Blood Flow: NO (Sex)
Everybody is familiar with those commercials showing the lady loving her man who just popped his Viagra or other sexual-dysfunction medication. These meds, particularly Viagra, function by helping to promote blood flow to working muscles, including the main one you’re going to want working when it comes to sex. These meds are often prescribed to women too though there is absolutely no evidence that they increase blood flow to their sexual organs.
Nitric oxide (NO) is a molecule that helps with vasodilation of blood vessels. It’s commonly used in nitroglycerin pills when someone has ischemic pain to their heart, also known as angina. But nitric oxide also activates something called cGMP, which is a molecule your body needs to get an erection. So if the blood isn’t going as needed to either beating part, NO synthesis may be an issue.
Nitric oxide is also necessary in the urea cycle which is how we humans remove ammonia waste, which commonly occurs from protein and muscle breakdown. The amino acids arginine, citrulline, and ornithine basically “spin” the urea cycle with some nutrient cofactors in there too, specifically zinc, magnesium, manganese, and vitamin B6. NO is produced from arginine on its way across this pathway to citrulline with the help of calcium and niacinamide. Not only does NO help with vascular tone and insulin secretion but along with arginine, they are known to improve the healing time of damaged tissue and stimulate the secretion of growth hormone – both important for any athlete. Arginine is also necessary for the synthesis of creatine, which provides substantial energy to muscles. Therefore, adequate protein can not only supply the adequate amino acids for healing tissue, but also proper NO synthesis for when you might need more tissues. (I’m trying to keep you entertained.)
So if you don’t have proper NO, you will have no sex, or you’ll perform poorly. Along with that, your athletic performance will most likely suffer too, as well as the health of your heart and entire cardiovascular system. Some people are told by their doc that they are not healthy enough to have sex. If that’s what it’s come to then that person is in dire health. They could die from having sex, just like any other physical activity, and in this case some nitric oxide production may be a factor.
What – You’re Still Not Ready? Get in the Mood!
Neurotransmitters are those chemicals which communicate information throughout our bodies and are responsible for how we think, feel, and act. They make up a lot of our personality and how we react to just about everything. When it comes to sex, the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine are vital.
Serotonin is one of our neurotransmitters that affects mood, sleep, digestion, and a host of other functions. Many people think of serotonin when they think about depression and also SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) medications such as Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro, and so many more. Of course if you’re depressed, or have anxiety issues, then good luck wanting to have sex or enjoying it.
The majority (90%) of your serotonin is made in your gut, so what you eat and what you consume will affect your mental health – hence the saying “Your food affects your mood.” Dehydration can also affect gut health and so can training too hard. NSAID use can really cause a lot of gut tissue destruction, thereby affecting serotonin synthesis. Alberto Salazar is well-known for stating that his use of Prozac was a key reason for him returning to successful professional racing. Many elite (and amateur) endurance athletes suffer from depression, perhaps from poor serotonin levels.
Serotonin is also necessary to make melatonin, which is the hormone necessary for proper sleep. The drugs which many take for depression can inhibit and negatively influence this melatonin production leading to poor sleep. Poor sleep, of course, leads to poor health and if you’re not sleeping well you probably don’t care to have sex too much, if at all.
Now some also take certain neurotransmitter medications, including SSRIs, for anxiety. The increased serotonin helps to calm them down when they are hyped up. This balance between excitation (the anxiety) and inhibition (the serotonin) is much like the sympathetic and parasympathetic balance discussed earlier. Interestingly enough, in the 1800s, sexually frustrated, irritable, and sleep deprived women would go to their doctors for what was diagnosed as “hysteria” – a sexual dysfunction. Her doctor would massage her genitalia with hopes of achieving an orgasm to help treat her condition. Later the doctors got tired of all this manual work, (not much has changed here), and innovative medical docs created what we today call a vibrator. No, I am not making this up. So if you’re anxious maybe you just need some alone time.
Dopamine is another important neurotransmitter necessary for health, fitness, and sexual well-being. Dopamine is a precursor to adrenalin and noradrenalin, so you can imagine what happens to dopamine levels if you’re training too hard – you use a lot of it up. Dopamine provides sexual gratification, motivation, proper sleep and dreaming, and it’s what makes us reward-driven (you want to win that race dammit!).
When someone is suspected to have an imbalance with their dopamine level, conventional treatment is the medication bupropion (Wellbutrin). Naturally, dopamine is made from the amino acid tyrosine which is high in meats, dairy products, and nuts and seeds. Vitamin B6, zinc, magnesium, folate, iron, vitamins B12, B1, and B3 are all responsible for proper synthesis of dopamine. Many of these nutrients, especially B6 and magnesium, are depleted in athletes. Additionally those training too hard then deplete their dopamine levels as it’s needed more and more for adrenalin.
Many of these same nutrients needed for dopamine synthesis are also necessary for proper serotonin production. There is also, like everything in the body, a fine balance between serotonin and dopamine. The excitement of sex is more dependent on dopamine but when someone is taking a SSRI medication, their serotonin levels rise which causes the dopamine levels to drop. Essentially they lose emotions, can’t get aroused easily, and can go forever without an orgasm. This could also occur when training too hard and either not making enough dopamine or using it up to make adrenalin and noradrenalin.
Sex and Athletic Performance
Sex and athletic performance go hand-in-hand. (Please insert sex joke here.) If you’re healthy and making the proper hormones, neurotransmitters, and other chemicals, you’ll not only improve your health but also your fitness and sexual health and fitness too. Low stress levels will improve your naturally occurring sex hormones that not only keep you looking and feeling young and healthy, but fit and sexually active. For men, testosterone is the main hormone here, and for women, it’s progesterone and to a lesser extent estrogen. But the state of these hormones depends on how you treat and take care of your body every day. The main stress hormone, cortisol, will use up the stuff you need to make your sex hormones, essentially shunting the pathway from more anabolic (building up) to more catabolic (breaking down). The same goes for proper neurotransmitter levels – you can’t just expect to eat okay now and then, train erratically and spontaneously, and live with high stress and still want to be interested and enjoy sex.
It goes the other way too. Being sexually active, (and yeah that can mean going solo), can improve your performance – both your endurance and strength. I actually found this study associating a woman’s gait to her orgasm. Pretty cool, plus there’s always someone out there who needs a study to believe anything. Sex helps with sleep, which many people know, (especially us guyzzz…..), and now you have perhaps made the link between parasympathetic-sympathetic-orgasm-falling asleep. So since proper training needs recovery, sex is a great activity to add in to your training program. And sex will help provide healthy hormonal and neurotransmitter levels which will make you a happier, healthier, faster, and stronger athlete – and it’s drug-free. Now go get some!
Listen to the Podcast I did over at Trail Runner Nation regarding this article. Click here.