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The Chemistry of Sex

Good sex is never simple. There’s a lot to remember and it’s easy to become distracted. But what’s happening in our brains while we’re putting in all this groundwork?

Oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’

Some people love it and others loathe it: cuddling after sex can be a deal breaker. But the impulse for a post-coital hug is more biological than you may think. Oxytocin is a hormone that is secreted from the pituitary gland at the base of your brain, and it’s often referred to as the ‘cuddle’ or ‘love’ hormone because it is released when people embrace. This chemical promotes bonding, skin-to-skin contact and romance. In women, oxytocin helps shrink the uterus after childbirth and helps send biological messages to activate breastfeeding.

The endorphin rush

People often talk about experiencing a ‘rush of endorphins’ without knowing what it actually means. Endorphins are chemicals produced by the pituitary gland that have pain-relieving properties and the same chemical structure as opiates. They are released during all kinds of exercise—particularly sex and orgasm. Fun fact: a clinical trial in 1999 found that acupuncture is also a great trigger of endorphins. Another fact: it’s definitely not the most fun way to trigger endorphins.

Hooked on adrenaline

You don’t need to go skydiving to get the same kind of high. Adrenaline is caused by high stress situations that trigger a ‘fight or flight’ psychological response, but it’s also created by short rapid breaths and contracting muscles. ‘Adrenaline junkies’ seek out dangerous situations, and really, people who seek out lots of sexual partners do it for the same feeling. Sex can be a marathon, after all. If it’s safe and everyone is into it, we say go for gold.

Dopamine, the Kim Kardashian of hormones

Although it has been called the ‘Kim Kardashian of hormones’—because it’s a salacious subject health magazine editors love to publish stories about – dopamine really is as sexy as it’s been made out to be. The chemical is released during moments of arousal, and once it kicks in our brains feel an invisible ‘love craving’. It also creates a yearning for reward and furthering our survival, which translates into lust. Dopamine is what causes us to crave things, even when we’ve just had them. It’s the reason why one piece of pie is just never enough.

Prolactin will take your mind off it

It’s hard, we mean, difficult when all you can think about is sex. Biologically our brains recognise that this could be an issue, with remembering to survive and whatnot, so it releases a hormone to take our minds off things. In most people, prolactin is released after orgasm and allows you to disengage from the act, clearing your mind and reminding you of all the things you need to do with your day. But don’t worry: its effects don’t last long.