It feels good, but it may also be good for you, doctors say

By Connie Prater Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) MIAMI _ The mood is set _ candles, body oils, music. Gradually, your heart rate increases. The neural cells in your brain begin releasing endorphins _ those feel-good chemicals that give you a sense of euphoria as potent as a shot of morphine. What you AREN’T likely thinking are the health benefits of the act you’re about to be engaged in. Doctors, psychologists and sex therapists say yeah, it feels good, but it may also be good for you. Take note: _Sex increases the blood flow and circulation throughout the body and may help reduce the risk of heart attack. _It is a mental health tonic and stress reducer. _Thirty minutes of sex burns on average 150 calories. “You’re burning calories and it beats the heck out of jogging,” said Dr. Eva Ritvo, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami and head of the Department of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. “Clearly the longer you’re doing it, the more calories you’re burning.” Added Miami family practitioner Dr. Fleur Sack: “Exercise is good and sex is exercise and if you’re doing it at least three times a week,” you’ll be healthier. Though there’s a mountain of research on how often Americans have sex and how much we enjoy it _ or don’t _ there is scarce information on its physical and health benefits. One reason may be a lack of study subjects. Imagine having your heart rate monitored or blood pressure checked before, during and after intercourse? A real turn-off, right? One study conducted a decade ago by Dr. David Weeks at Scotland’s Royal Edinburgh Hospital did look at 3,500 men between the ages of 18 and 102 (yes, 102!). The survey concluded that men having orgasms three or more times a week had a reduction in heart disease and lived longer than those who didn’t. During sex both men and women release a hormone called oxytocin, Ritvo said, the same hormone stimulated when women nurse babies. “The oxytocin can also lower blood pressure and reduce incidence of breast cancer in women who haven’t nursed,” Ritvo said. “It makes you feel great and makes you want to stay home and care for your infant. That is probably one of the reasons you feel good in sex and relaxed.” Men release testosterone, important for strengthening bones and muscles and male’s immune function, she added. Men also can take comfort in this: The more sex you have, the less your chances of developing prostatitis _ an enlargement of the prostate due to fluid buildup. More frequent ejaculation may help relieve that buildup, according to Sack, president-elect of the Florida Academy of Family Physicians, a group representing 3,500 family physicians. She also cited the research on heart rates. “When you’re having sex with your spouse or someone in a long-term relationship, your heart rate goes up to about 120 beats per minute (from the normal of 70),” she said, noting that 120 beats per minute is a healthy range for cardiovascular fitness, but those whose rate goes higher increase their risk of heart attack. “If you’re having extramarital sex, it goes up to about 180 beats per minute.” The incidence of heart attack during sex for men having affairs is higher than for those in committed relationships, she said: “The risk of being caught is high and it’s more exciting.” Of course, doctors cautioned against sex outside of a committed relationship and urged safe sex to avoid contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. They also advised against unwanted pregnancies. But if you follow these caveats, you can have fun and boost your health. “It can improve sleep,” said Amy Demner, a Coral Springs licensed clinical psychologist. “It can also help to reduce worry and anxiety. When your mind is focused on pleasure and sexy things, anxious thoughts will tend to not be present.” Those endorphins that are released in the brain also act like a booster-shot for the body’s immune system. Nothing beats stress _ that silent menace that many believe contributes to ulcers, migraines and other disorders _ like a good round of sex, experts say. “One of the mental health benefits is being able to have complete trust in another human being . . .,” said Gary Neuman, a Miami Beach marriage counselor and author of “Emotional Infidelity: How to affair-proof your marriage and other secrets to a great relationship.” “We are very anxious about losing control, but if we allow ourselves to lose our sense of control with another person, it’s a mental health benefit.” Neuman and Sack noted that couples should not focus solely on actual intercourse. Touching and caressing also carries with it the increased heart rate, blood circulation and stress-relieving bonuses. “It could be just touching and hugging and kissing and playing with each other’s bodies,” said Sack. She noted that those experiencing sexual dysfunction can turn to masturbation or mutual stimulation and get some of the same health benefits _ as well as pleasure. ___ ‘copy 2003, The Miami Herald. Visit The Miami Herald Web edition on the World Wide Web at Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.