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The Power of Love: How does our love life shape us— mind, body, and

soul? Let us count the ways

Time Magazine, Jan. 19, 2004 Issue

One thing you can say about lust, it sure shows up early. Talk all you want about the
honey-sweet face of an innocent newborn, the fact is, from the moment we appear in the
world, we're not much more than squalling balls of passion. Our needs aren't many: to
sleep, to eat, to be held, to be changed. Satisfy these, and there won't be any trouble. Fail
to, and you will hear about it.

Of all the urges that drive us, it's the passion to be held that makes itself known first. If
a baby is startled fresh from the womb, German pediatrician Ernst Moro discovered in
1918, its arms will fly up and out, then come together in a desperate clutch. Holding is
good, and floating free is bad—a lesson that's not so much learned after birth as
preloaded at the factory. In fact, doctors have long known that babies who aren't held
simply fail to thrive. Not surprisingly, it's a need we never outgrow. In one way or
another, we spend the rest of our lives in a sort of sustained Moro clinch.

Physical contact—the feeling of skin on skin, the tickle of hair on face, the intimate scent
drawn in by nose pressed to neck—is one of the most precious, priceless things Homo
sapiens can offer one another. Mothers and their babies share it one way, friends and
siblings share it another, teams and crowds in a celebratory scrum share it a third. And
of course lovers share it in the most complex way of all.

Of all the splendidly ridiculous, transcendently fulfilling things humans do, it's sex—
with its countless permutations of practices and partners—that most confounds
understanding. What in the world are we doing? Why in the world are we so consumed
by it? The impulse to procreate may lie at the heart of sex, but like the impulse to
nourish ourselves, it is merely the starting point for an astonishingly varied banquet.
Bursting from our sexual center is a whole spangle of other things—art, song, romance,
obsession, rapture, sorrow, companionship, love, even violence and criminality—all
playing an enormous role in everything from our physical health to our emotional
health to our politics, our communities, our very life spans.

Why should this be so? Did nature simply overload us in the mating department, hot-
wiring us for the sex that is so central to the survival of the species, and never mind the
sometimes sloppy consequences? Or is there something smarter and subtler at work,
some larger interplay among sexuality, life and what it means to be human? Can
evolution program for poetry, or does it simply want children?

If there's indeed much more than babies involved in the reasons for sex, we're clearly
not the first species to benefit from that fact. Even among the nonhuman orders, sex
appears to be regularly practiced for a whole range of nonreproductive reasons with a
wide range of community-building benefits. How else to explain the fact that
homosexual behavior occurs in more than 450 species? How else to explain kissing
among bonobos, nuzzling among zebras, literal necking among male giraffes? How else
to explain the fact that some sexually active animals seem to avoid reproduction quite
deliberately, mating at times that are unlikely to produce young or picking partners that
are unable to do so? From 80% to 95% of a species of sea lion rarely or never reproduce,
though they continue to couple. And so of course do many of us, chasing sex as
passionately as the most prolific of breeders.

"How many times in your life do you think about being sexual," asks clinical
psychologist Joanne Marrow of California State University, Sacramento, "and how many
of those times are you thinking about reproduction?" So what gives? And don't say
simply that sex is fun. So are gardening and traveling and going to the movies, but
when was the last time you woke up in the middle of the night with your heart
pounding and your breath catching because of a dream you were having about a trip to
Barcelona? Just as there's more to sex than babies, there's also more to it than fun.

Part of what makes touch—and by extension, sex—such a central part of the species
software is that hedonism simply makes good Darwinian sense. It's not for nothing that
hot stoves hurt and caresses feel nice, and we learn early on to distinguish between the
two. "All creatures do things that feel good and avoid things that feel bad," says J. Gayle
Beck, professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo. "The individuals who learn
that best live the longest."

But mastering even so basic an idea can be a slow process, often too slow when survival
is on the line. And so nature provides us with a head start. Before we have a chance to
practice our first little Moro grab—before we leave the womb, in fact—our pleasure
engine is humming. "Little boys can have erections from the day they're born,
sometimes even in utero," says Marrow. "Both sexes get pleasure from touching
themselves without having to be taught." Once we're in the world, both nature and
experience reinforce that need for physical contact, turning us into full-blown tactile
bacchanalians.

Nursing alone is a powerful reinforcer. The mechanics of animal nursing can be a


utilitarian business, with wobbly-legged newborns standing up to drink from Mom as if
she were a spigot. Human nursing, by contrast, requires flesh-on-flesh cuddling. What's
more, a mother's metabolism ensures that this contact occurs more or less all day long.
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, professor emeritus at the University of California at
Davis, points out that human beings produce very dilute breast milk, which necessitates
frequent nursing sessions and therefore provides loads of opportunities for mother and
child to touch.

The whole-body rapture found in Mom's arms lasts only through infancy, but children
become expert at seeking the same security as they grow older, and good parents have a
sixth sense about what the priorities are. A wailing child with a cut knee gets a long hug
first, even though it's the bleeding wound that needs attention. In uncounted thousands
of such tactile transactions, kids learn to use touch as a means of connection at least as
expressive as—and certainly more satisfying than—anything so detached as speech.
With the pump thus primed, they are ready for the next, exponentially bigger step: the
moment, at age 12 or so, when the glands engage, the hormones flow and a childhood
of simple physicality becomes a lifetime of sexuality.

From the moment the bodies of boys and girls are able to conceive, nature is very clear
that it wants these mere babies to go about making babies of their own, and so it makes
the impulse almost irresistible. There's a reason for the fabled sexual stamina of teens:
the more frequent the pairings, the more likely the offspring. What's more, the pleasure
of sex can often lead to long-term bonding, something else nature wants if babies and
children—with their long years of dependency—are going to survive into adulthood.

But even at this unsophisticated stage of sexual maturation, there's more going on in
kids than simply developing an exquisite reproductive itch and learning the wonderful
ways it can be scratched. "More and more in our field, we don't even talk about sex
anymore," says anthropologist Gil Herdt, director of the Program in Human Sexuality
Studies at San Francisco State University. "We talk about sexuality. It's something that
involves the entire person, the whole life course, not just the sexual acts."

Marrow agrees and takes the notion even further with the belief that human sexuality is
a form of communication as much as it is of procreation. Nearly all creative acts are at
least in part communicative. Songs are written to be sung to somebody else; pictures are
painted to be hung for somebody else. Is it any surprise that sex—an act infinitely more
intimate than any type of art—is also a creative way of communicating complex ideas
and deep feelings? "The biologists think the biology comes first," Marrow says. "I think
consciousness is the first part of sex, and exploring that consciousness with another
person is one of its purposes." If Marrow is right, it's no wonder that poetry and music
are often included in the business of romance, if only to make that message richer.

Of course, artistry—even something as small as a well-chosen greeting card or a


romantic setting for dinner—may open the sexual door, but something else must keep it
from closing again. What sustains a physical relationship after the early romantic
rounds end is something more nuanced than seduction and more enduring than
passion. Often it's something as wonderfully ordinary as stability. Partners who
maintain a robust sex life are simply more likely to remain partners than those who
don't, something almost any couple knew long before the sex researchers thought to
quantify it. If it is hard to be physical with a mate you've stopped loving, it can be
equally hard to get to that cold point with a person with whom you still share the
intimacy, exclusivity and, especially, vulnerability of sex. This is particularly true as the
intoxication of a new relationship begins to fade and partners start to notice flaws they
were too romantically tipsy to see before.
Not only does the relationship benefit from a steady sex life, but so can the physical and
emotional health of the partners themselves. Research suggests that married people
may live longer than singles, that happily marrieds do best of all, and that couples who
remain at least somewhat sexual, even into their dotage, report a better level of
satisfaction both with their relationships and with their lives as a whole. Certainly, it's
hard to say if people who start off happy and satisfied simply have more sex or if it's
the sex that makes them happy and satisfied. Whatever the answer, it's clear that human
beings would not be fully Homo sapiens—at least not as we've come to understand
ourselves—without the great, mysterious, preposterous pageant of our sexuality.

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced, in whole or in part by any means or in any
medium, mechanical or electronic, without expressed written permission of TIME Inc.
The Chemistry of Desire: Everyone knows what lust feels like. Scientists
are now starting to understand how it happens

By Michael D. Lemonick

Time Magazine, Jan. 19, 2004 Issue

Eight years ago, after she had a hysterectomy at age 42, Roslyn Washington was left
with an unexpected side effect. Her doctors, who had recommended removing her
ovaries as well as her uterus because of fibroid tumors and an ovarian cyst, had warned
her about a lengthy recovery period. But, she says, "I was not aware of the fact that there
would be a decrease in my sexual life." That's something of an understatement.
Washington, an office manager from Silver Spring, Md., who is married and has a
teenage daughter, says that after the surgery she felt no sexual desire whatsoever. "I
didn't think about it," she says. "I didn't get that urge from a glance or a look or a
touch." It was a profound loss. "Without that connection, without the sexual aspects,
you feel in some instances like you're really less than a woman," she says.

Then several years later Washington heard a radio ad seeking women like her for a
study of testosterone patches. People usually think of testosterone as a male hormone,
but women have plenty in their systems too, and researchers have reason to believe that
the hormone is involved in the female sex drive. About half of women's testosterone is
produced in the ovaries, so the patches were an attempt to replace what had been lost
through surgery. Washington signed up and was one of 75 women accepted for the
study out of 50,000 who applied; clearly she was not alone in her misery. Twice a week
for the next year she affixed a thin, clear patch onto her abdomen, alternating sites over
where her right and left ovaries used to be.

Washington didn't know whether she was receiving transdermal testosterone or a


placebo. She did know that things were very different. "I hadn't felt like that in years,"
she says. "I felt stimulated. It was like, 'Oh, yeah, I'd forgotten that's what it feels like.' It
was good." Alas, when the trial ended, her desire ebbed.

It's tempting to conclude that Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of the testosterone patch,
had found the elusive chemical key to female desire. The study, published in 2000 in the
New England Journal of Medicine, reported that many of the women who, like
Washington, were on real testosterone had more sexual fantasies and more sex and
masturbated more than they had before. But so, albeit to a lesser extent, did women
who wore patches with no testosterone at all. For women suffering from lost libido, the
placebo effect was almost as strong as that of the hormone. In short, the mere belief that
the treatment would rekindle sexual desire was often enough to turn up the heat.
This finding illustrates the promise and the perplexity of research into the biology of
human sexuality, where mind, body and experience are endlessly intermingled. People
find themselves turned on in obvious situations — slow-dancing together, seeing
someone with a sexy body, finding a member of the opposite or same gender to be
excitingly sharp-witted or funny. But carnal longings strike at surprising times too — in
the wake of a victory by your favorite team (for men, anyway) or at times of fear or even
after a tragedy, like the death of a parent.

No matter how lust is triggered, though, sex, like eating or sleeping, is ultimately
biochemical, governed by hormones, neurotransmitters and other substances that
interact in complicated ways to create the familiar sensations of desire, arousal, orgasm.
By understanding how that happens, scientists should in principle be able to help
people like Washington for whom sex just isn't working. And indeed, over the past
decade or two, scientists have identified many of the pieces of this complex puzzle. It
clearly involves testosterone, along with other hormones, including estrogen and
oxytocin, and brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. And
there are numerous other bodily chemicals that turn us on, ranging from the
commonplace, nitric oxide, to the obscure, vasoactive intestinal polypeptide.

Scientists have also learned that the old notion that 90% of sex is in the mind is literally
true: the parts of the brain involved in sexual response include, at the very least, the
sensory vagus nerves, the midbrain reticular formation, the basal ganglia, the anterior
insula cortex, the amygdala, the cerebellum and the hypothalamus.

If all this sounds complicated, it is. Researchers are still struggling to understand how
these pieces fit together and how they might be different for men and women. It's not
clear which chemicals of desire are unleashed and under which circumstances, because
setting and mood, as women know better than men, can make all the difference
between arousal and annoyance.

Nevertheless, scientists are light-years ahead of where they were in the 1920s and '30s,
when estrogen and testosterone were first identified, and they know a great deal more
than they did in the 1940s, when Alfred Kinsey, followed by the research team of
William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the 1960s, published some of the first scholarly
studies of human sexuality. Those studies concluded that sexual response proceeds in
distinct stages, beginning with excitement — erection in men, engorgement of vaginal
and clitoral tissue in women — proceeding to orgasm and finally to "resolution," in
which tissues return to their normal state.

They didn't delve into biochemistry, though, and it turns out they probably didn't get
the stages right either. In the 1970s psychiatrist Helen Singer Kaplan, who founded the
Human Sexuality Program at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, pointed out that
before you get physically aroused, you have to feel sexual desire — a statement that
seems pretty obvious. It's also pretty obvious to anyone who has been in a heterosexual
relationship that men and women tend to experience sexuality somewhat differently. So
where Masters and Johnson saw sexual arousal as a linear progression toward orgasm,
researchers like Dr. Rosemary Basson of the University of British Columbia argued in
1999 that women, at least, operate in a more circular pattern. Desire can precede
stimulation or be triggered by it. Satisfaction is possible at any of the stages. And
orgasm isn't necessarily the ultimate goal.

Stimulation, moreover, can take all sorts of forms. Says Dr. Jennifer Berman, a urologist
and director of the Female Sexual Medicine Center at UCLA: "Women experience desire
as a result of context — how they feel about themselves and their partner, how safe they
feel, their closeness and their attachment." Men, says Berman, "tend to be more visually
directed and stimulated than women are." Thus Playboy and Hooters and the estimated
$10 billion-a-year mainly male-oriented pornography industry.

But the reasons for that difference may be as much cultural as they are physiological.
Dr. Julia Heiman, a psychologist and director of the Reproductive and Sexual Medicine
Clinic at the University of Washington Medical School, is one of a growing number of
researchers who think it's misguided to see men as simple and linear and women as
complex and circular. "I don't think we've taken the time to talk to men about what
desire is," she says. "If they are emotional about their sexuality, they don't feel in step
with other men."

Women who don't fit stereotypes don't fare much better, says Jim Pfaus, a psychologist
at Concordia University in Montreal who studies behavioral neurobiology. "What is a
woman who expresses arousal in response to blatantly visual sexual cues? I hope we've
moved beyond calling her a slut while calling a man who does the same a stud." But the
cultural prejudice behind those labels persists, he says.

Research by Meredith Chivers at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, affiliated
with the University of Toronto, shows that women do respond to sexy visual stimuli. In
fact, in a study recently presented at a Kinsey Institute conference on female sexuality,
Chivers found that women show physical signs of arousal in response to a wider
variety of images (including films of bonobo chimps mating) than men do. But unlike in
men, this physical arousal is not closely paired with a subjective feeling of being turned
on. In short, physical arousal for women can come before or even in the absence of
conscious desire — doubtless a source of much confusion between the sexes. Arousal
and desire can also happen at once.

But while arousal and desire are intimately intertwined and probably involve all sorts
of feedback between brain and genitalia that have yet to be untangled, at least some of
the underlying biochemistry is becoming clear. Here is a catalog of some of the key
chemicals of love:

--LETTING IT FLOW Desire is complicated. Arousal, by contrast, is pretty


straightforward: fill the penile arteries with blood or divert blood to the vagina and
clitoris, and you're there. "Once the brain gets turned on — however it gets turned on —
it's a relatively simple concept to increase blood flow," says Dr. Alan Altman, a specialist
in menopause and sexuality at Harvard Medical School. In men, a chemical that
facilitates the flow is vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, a hormone that also directs the
expansion and contraction of smooth muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.

But the primary chemical in charge of that function is nitric oxide. It's a vascular traffic
cop, activating the muscles that control the expansion and contraction of blood vessels.
If the mind is in the mood — or when you pop a nitric-oxide-boosting drug such as
Viagra or Levitra — the body responds. Men tend to be more focused on genital
stimulation than women, so they are more likely to perceive an increased blood flow to
the genitals as arousal, while women may be unaware of it. That may be one reason
why trials of Viagra on women have been disappointing.

--FUELS FOR LUST If there's one substance that ultimately makes it possible to get
turned on in the first place, testosterone is probably it. "When testosterone is gone," says
UCLA's Berman, "for whatever reason — aging, medication — men experience erection
and libido problems." Restore the testosterone, and you usually fix those problems.

Women too seem to have problems getting interested in sex when their testosterone
levels are too low, which is why Procter & Gamble is experimenting with testosterone
patches. Says Altman: "When women are having normal menstrual cycles in their prime
reproductive ages, their ovaries make two times more testosterone than estrogen." A
few days before ovulation, triggered by surging levels of testosterone — along with
other hormones including progesterone and estrogen — sexual desire peaks, according
to new research by Martha McClintock of the University of Chicago that dispels a long-
held theory that fertility precedes desire.

But for women, at least, estrogen may also be crucial. "Give estrogen to women with
decreased desire," says Pfaus, "and you don't restore desire. Give them testosterone
alone, and you get a little increase in desire. Give them estrogen and testosterone
together, and you get a whopping increase." Why? Some research suggests that
testosterone's role in women is diversionary: it attaches to so-called steroid-binding
globulins in the blood that would otherwise latch onto estrogen molecules and render
them inert. The testosterone is taken away to the liver, while the estrogen is free to make
a lust-inducing dash for the brain.

Pfaus argues further that estrogen may be the ultimate love hormone for men as well.
"A lot of studies on rats and birds," he says, "show that brains are like giant ovaries, in
the sense that testosterone and other androgens are converted into estrogens in the
hypothalamus. And this conversion appears to be critical to the expression of male
sexual behavior."

--THE FEEL-GOOD CHEMICAL Both testosterone and estrogen trigger desire by


stimulating the release of neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemicals are ultimately
responsible for our moods, emotions and attitudes. And the most important of these for
the feeling we call desire seems to be dopamine. Dopamine is at least partly responsible
for making external stimuli arousing (among other things, it's thought to be the
pleasure-triggering substance underlying drug addiction). "Being low on dopamine,"
says the University of Washington Medical School's Heiman, "correlates with being low
on desire." And in men dopamine-enhancing drugs (including some antidepressants
and anti-Parkinson's medications) can increase desire and erections. So can
apomorphine, a Parkinson's drug that latches directly onto the dopamine receptors in
brain cells and turns them on.

Another neurotransmitter almost certainly involved in the biochemistry of desire is


serotonin, which, like dopamine, plays a role in feelings of satisfaction. Antidepressants
like Prozac, which enhance mood by keeping serotonin in circulation longer than usual,
can paradoxically depress the ability to achieve orgasm. But "dopamine and serotonin,"
says Heiman, "appear to interact with each other in a complicated way to impact
desire."

So, researchers suspect, do the neurotransmitters epinephrine and norepinephrine,


whose usual job is to pump up our energy when we're in danger. Blood-plasma levels
of both chemicals increase during masturbation, peak at orgasm and then decline, and
by-products of norepinephrine metabolism remain elevated for up to 23 hours after sex.
It's not yet clear, though, whether this is a cause or an effect of arousal.

--THE CUDDLE HORMONE Endocrinologists have known for years that oxytocin,
released by the pituitary gland, ovaries and testes, helps trigger childbirth contractions,
milk production during nursing and the pelvic shudders women experience during
orgasm (and possibly the contractions during male orgasm as well). The hormone is
believed to play a vital role in mother-child bonding and may do the same for new
fathers: oxytocin surges when a new dad holds his bundle of joy. Some researchers also
think of oxytocin as a cuddle chemical. Preliminary studies by psychiatrist Kathleen
Light at the University of North Carolina have found that oxytocin levels rise after
couples hold hands, hug or watch romantic movies. It also may be what makes you
want to stay with your partner until the morning after sex. Those who can relate to Billy
Crystal's "How long do I have to lie here?" scene from When Harry Met Sally might
question whether oxytocin affects both genders equally.

But there's increasing evidence that oxytocin is also involved in deeper bonding. It
certainly plays that role in a much studied little rodent called the prairie vole, which is
famous for its fidelity to its mate. The critter's brain releases a rush of oxytocin as it
bonds with its beloved. Block the chemical, and voles fail to make a connection. Inject
more of the hormone, and they fall for each other even faster.

A similar kind of imprinting might take place in humans. "Oxytocin release may help us
bond to certain features in our partners," says Pfaus. "It's probably part of the
mechanism that generates the template of what we find attractive." The next time you
see your partner or someone like your partner, he theorizes, "the oxytocin is activated. It
doesn't mean you have to be aroused. You just think, God, what a beautiful woman"--
which might explain why we're attracted to the same type over and over.
--ATTRACTIVE AROMAS? Probably the most controversial issue in the chemistry of
sexuality is the role of pheromones. In 1971 the University of Chicago's McClintock,
then a Wellesley undergraduate, proved scientifically what women in dorms had
known for decades: menstrual periods become synchronized when women live
together. It's probably because of pheromones, she said — olfactory chemicals that we
can detect even though we're not aware of them. In 1998, she did experiments that
proved this hypothesis, but, unlike animal pheromones, no human versions have been
isolated.

Because menstrual cycles and sexuality are part of an overall system, it's possible that
pheromones could trigger desire. Perfumemakers that market pheromone-based scents
have latched onto this notion. It's plausible, says Altman, "but I don't think the science is
very good on it." Pfaus agrees: "I hope it's true. Totally on faith, I believe it. The problem
is that the scientist in me says, 'O.K., but what are these pheromones, and who has
shown it?'"

--A DOUBLE SHOT OF LOVE A newly identified substance that has captured Pfaus's
interest is alpha melanocyte polypeptide, also known as melanocyte-stimulating
hormone (MSH). In clinical trials, this pituitary hormone had the dual effect of giving
men erections and heightening their interest in sex. Pfaus is studying a synthetic version
for Palatin Technologies of Cranbury, N.J., which is developing it as a nasal spray. "It's
astonishing that you have a little peptide that has such a big, specific effect," he says. It
interacts with dopamine, but how, precisely? "We don't know," he says.

Like all substances that promise to increase desire and performance, whether they are
prescription drugs or folk aphrodisiacs sold next to the cash register at the quick-stop
store, MSH is tough to investigate because of the placebo effect. As Procter & Gamble
discovered with its testosterone-patch study, arousal and desire are so entangled with
one's state of mind that it's tough to figure out cause and effect. Says Altman: "If you're
in a tribal society and taught that something is an aphrodisiac, it probably will be. But
someone in Los Angeles taking the same thing probably won't get the same effect."

Maybe that's just as well. For those who suffer from a lack of interest in sex, like Roslyn
Washington, it's great to have a treatment that works. But like the women in the
testosterone study who responded to a placebo showed, the real point is to create a sex
life that works. Feeling is believing, and vice versa. We experience attraction and sexual
desire as a sort of magic, a phenomenon filled with delightful mystery. And if scientists
continue to be overwhelmed by the complex interplay of dozens of substances
percolating from mind to body and back, that keeps the mystery nicely intact.

— Reported by Sonja Steptoe/Los Angeles

Copyright © 2004 Time Inc. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced, in whole or in part by any means or in any
medium, mechanical or electronic, without expressed written permission of TIME Inc.
Sexual Healing: What feels good is good for you too. Making love can
boost the heart, relieve pain and help keep you healthy

By Alice Park

Time Magazine, Jan. 19, 2004 Issue

The "sex glow." Carrie Bradshaw and her Sex and the City trio may be the champions of
detecting it, getting it and keeping it, but you don't need a closetful of Prada to
appreciate the rosy radiance that follows a pleasant sexual encounter. The fact is, sex
leaves its mark, not just on the mind but on the body as well. Researchers have begun to
explore its effects on almost every part of the body, from the brain to the heart to the
immune system.

Studies are showing that arousal and an active sex life may lead to a longer life, better
heart health, an improved ability to ward off pain, a more robust immune system and
even protection against certain cancers, not to mention lower rates of depression.

But finding mechanisms for these benefits and proving cause and effect are no easy
matter. "The associations are out there, so there has to be an explanation for it," says Dr.
Ronald Glaser, director of the Institute of Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State
University. Thanks to a better understanding of the biochemistry of arousal, as well as
advances in imaging techniques, doctors are closing in on some possibilities. Their
efforts are leading them to the hormone oxytocin, which may be the key lubricant for
the machinery of sex. Known for controlling the muscles of the uterus during childbirth,
oxytocin surges up to five times as high as its normal blood level during orgasm.
Studies in animals have also revealed oxytocin's softer side. It is responsible for helping
individuals forge strong emotional bonds, earning its moniker as the cuddle hormone.
Released in the brain, oxytocin works in the blood, where it travels to tissues as distant
as the uterus, as well as along nerve fibers, where it regulates body temperature, blood
pressure, wound healing and even relief from pain.

While it is unlikely that oxytocin alone is responsible for sex's wide-ranging effects on
the body, researchers hope that by tracking the hormone they can expose the network of
body systems affected by sexual activity and identify other biochemical players along
the way. Here's what they have learned so far:

--THE HEART OF THE MATTER

The strongest case that can be made for the benefits of sex come from studies of aerobic
fitness. The act of intercourse burns about 200 calories, the equivalent of running
vigorously for 30 minutes. During orgasm, both heart rate and blood pressure typically
double, all under the influence of oxytocin. It would be logical to conclude that sex, like
other aerobic workouts, can protect against heart disease, but studies in support of this
link have yet to be done. "Can we make the claim that having sex is equal to walking a
mile or bicycling? We don't know," says Robert Friar, a biologist at Michigan's Ferris
State University. "The data don't really exist."

At least not yet. A study conducted in Wales in the 1980s showed that men who had sex
twice a week or more often experienced half as many heart attacks after 10 years as men
who had intercourse less than once a month. The trial, however, did not include a
parallel group of randomly chosen control subjects, the scientific gold standard. So it's
unclear whether frequent intercourse was responsible for the lower rate of heart attacks
or whether, for example, the men who were sexually active were healthier or less prone
to heart disease to begin with.

More recent research has focused on the hormones dehydroepiandrostone (DHEA) and
testosterone, both important for libido. They have been linked to reducing the risk of
heart disease as well as protecting the heart muscle after an attack. That may explain
why doctors maintain that sex after a heart attack is relatively safe.

--PAIN CONTROL

In the 1970s Dr. Beverly Whipple of Rutgers University identified the female G spot, the
vaginal on-switch for female arousal, and stumbled upon one of oxytocin's more potent
effects: its ability to dull pain. Whipple showed that gentle pressure on the G spot raised
pain thresholds by 40% and that during orgasm women could tolerate up to 110% more
pain. But she could not explain the link until the advent of functional magnetic
resonance imaging (fMRI). Using fMRI to view the brains of easily orgasmic women as
they climaxed, either with visual stimuli or by self-stimulation, Whipple found that the
body's pain-killing center in the midbrain is activated during peak arousal. Signals from
this part of the brain instruct the body to release endorphins and corticosteroids, which
can temporarily numb the raw nerve endings responsible for everything from
menstrual cramps to arthritis and migraine for several minutes. Activating this region
also reduces anxiety and has a calming effect.

--HE HEALING POWER OF SEX

A trial involving more than 100 college students in 1999 found that the levels of
immunoglobulin, a microbe-fighting antibody, in students who engaged in intercourse
once or twice a week were 30% higher than in those who were abstinent. Curiously,
those who had sex more than twice a week had the same levels as those who were
celibate. Could there be an optimal rate of sexual frequency for keeping the body's
defenses strong?

Researchers in Sweden are meanwhile exploring how sex affects another


immunological function: the healing of wounds. Here again, oxytocin may lead the way.
Using injections of oxytocin as a surrogate for arousal, Swedish investigators have
found that sores on the backs of lab rats heal twice as fast under the influence of the
hormone as without it.

To find out whether the hormone has the same healing effect in people, Ohio State's
Glaser and his wife Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychologist at the same institution, are
enrolling married couples in an unorthodox study in which each spouse's arm is
blistered and then covered with a serum-collecting device. Over a 24-hour observation
period, the couples discuss positive aspects of their marriage and mates as well as
points of contention, such as finances or in-laws. The Glasers will analyze how levels of
oxytocin change during these discussions, along with rates of healing.

--A LONG, HAPPY LIFE?

It's well known that married folk tend to live longer and suffer less depression than
singles do. But is this because of more frequent sex, simple companionship or some
benign aspect of personality that lends itself to marriage? Teasing apart such matters is
difficult, but sex itself appears to be factor. A study of 3,500 Scottish men, for example,
found a link between frequent intercourse and greater longevity. A much smaller study
of elderly men found that those who masturbated appeared to experience less
depression than those who did not. In addition, frequent sexual activity has been tied to
lower risk of breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men, a relationship that is
still not fully understood but may involve some interaction between oxytocin and the
sex hormones estrogen and testosterone and their roles in cell signaling and cell
division. "Scientifically, it's an exciting time that will lead to a lot of rethinking and
reconceptualizing of human sexuality," says Dr. John Bancroft, director of the Kinsey
Institute. As the answers come in, the human race may begin to appreciate that the "sex
glow" stays with them a lot longer than they realized.

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