You may feel a change in your libido
How not having sex affects your body can vary based on your health, how old you are, and even what kind of sex you were having. But if you’re generally healthy and have only stopped having sex because of a lack of a partner or a conscious choice (and not some other physical reason), there are some changes you could experience. You may feel either a loss of sex drive—or an increase in libido! “For some people who refrain from sex, they begin to feel more sluggish, with less vitality and hunger for sex,” says Sari Cooper, LCSW, certified sex therapist. “Out of sight out of mind is how some of my clients describe the scenario.” Because it’s not on your radar, you may tune out sexual desires; but for others, not having sex could make it even more desirable. “You might not be thinking about it as much, or you might be thinking about it all the time,” says Lauren Streicher, MD, author of Sex Rx: Hormones, Health, and Your Best Sex Ever. “It’s really variable.”
You may feel more down in the dumps
Sex is part physical, part mental. “When people have sex they're usually having skin-to-skin contact, and this kind of contact is the first primal way we as humans get comforted [as babies with our mothers],” Cooper says. “Sexual connection give partners loads of skin-to-skin caressing and touch, and can help to regulate one another’s moods,” through the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Dr. Streicher also says sex can help boost your spirits through mood-elevating endorphins. Without the benefit of these natural pick-me-ups, you might be prone to feeling low—but that doesn’t mean you’ll become clinically depressed. Although studies have shown that depression and a lack of sex are linked, this reflects an association, not cause and effect. “If you are a healthy person and you stop having sex, you’re not going to become depressed because of it,” Dr. Streicher says. “You might be depressed because your boyfriend cheated on you and your life is in the toilet, but the specific lack of sexual activity is in no way going to cause [clinical] depression, even though there’s a high correlation.”
Your vaginal walls may weaken
In women entering menopause, not having vaginal penetration can be a “use it or lose it” type of thing. “Without regular frequency of intercourse as you get older the walls of your vagina thin out and can lead to painful sex when you finally get back into the sack,” Cooper says. According to the North American Menopause Society, regular intercourse is important for vaginal health after menopause. “Older women who are not having intercourse are more likely to have thinning and drying of the tissues,” Dr. Streicher says. “A big part of this is blood flow, and we know increased activity increases blood flow.”
You may have less lubrication
For older women, the vagina can also have a hard time getting lubricated when you do start having intercourse again. As with thinning of the vaginal walls, this happens as women age because of the lack of hormones such as estrogen. “If you take a young woman who’s 20 or 30 years old she’s going to have plenty of estrogen around to make sure those tissues stay healthy, elastic, and lubricated” when she’s not having sex, Dr. Streicher says. “If you take someone who’s 60 and has no estrogen, she has lost that piece of it.” Cooper says it’s important to keep things flowing, even in the absence of a partner: “The vaginal lubrication lessens with age, and if you're not being turned on through self-pleasure, erotic books, videos, or a partner, the juice can begin to lessen more quickly.” These are more secrets your vagina wishes it could tell you.
You may feel more—or less—stressed
Like the other psychological effects of a lack of sex, this one is tricky. “People who are less stressed tend to have more sex, but again it’s an association, not cause and effect,” Dr. Streicher says. That said, if sex is a stress reliever for you, not having could it, in fact, cause an increase in your stress level. One small study from Scotland even showed that blood pressure reactivity to stress was lower among people who had had intercourse than those who abstained. But, Dr. Steicher says, “for some women sex is actually stressful for a variety of reasons: It may be painful, or it could be one more thing on their to-do list.”
You may lower your risk of UTIs
It might not be a surprise that the risk of sexually transmitted infections go down if you’re not having sex, but the rates of urinary tract infections may decrease as well. But this depends on the kind of sex you’re having. “It’s intercourse that’s responsible for potentially increasing the risk of recurrent bladder infections,” Dr. Streicher says, due to the spread of bacteria that can occur. Eighty percent of UTIs in premenopausal women occur within 24 hours of having sex, and as the journal American Family Physician stated, “Frequency of sexual intercourse is the strongest predictor of recurrent urinary tract infections.” If you’re not having intercourse, you avoid these risks.
You may have worse menstrual cramps
Surprisingly, sex may help alleviate cramps during your period. Although it hasn’t been well studied, Dr. Streicher says the rationale is sound. “The uterus is a muscle and many women will actually have a uterine contraction when they orgasm, which will cause the blood to expel more quickly, which will in turn decrease menstrual cramps,” she explains. “Also, there may be an increase in endorphins, which also will help with menstrual cramps.” This is an unexpected benefit you lose if you’re not having sex—but fortunately, this one doesn’t require a partner to remedy.
You may become less intelligent
OK, not exactly, but two very interesting studies in rodents, one from the University of Maryland and one from South Korea, found that having sex improved their brain function and the growth of brain cells. Much more research is needed, though, before we can say definitely that not having sex means you’re missing out on this mental boost. “This goes under the heading of ‘interesting preliminary research’, but proves nothing,’” Dr. Streicher says.
You retain the physical capacity for sex
Although some groups, such as menopausal women, may have long-term effects from not having sex, generally your body remembers how to do it when you jump back in the saddle. “I think that’s reassuring to people to say, ‘Hey, we’ve been on hiatus but it’s not like it’s going to shrivel up and die,’” Dr. Streicher says. “Things are going to work just fine. If they worked before they’re going to keep on working, even if you’ve had a break.” And on the flip side, here are the unexpected benefits you get from having sex.