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Put the Joy Back in Staying Healthy

Posted: April 24, 2009

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Marvin Gaye sang about it, but you can also find bits and pieces of evidence in the medical literature of the power of sexual activity to fix medical problems. An Israeli neurologist published a case report about two male patients whose headaches went away after sexual intercourse or orgasm (although sexual activity as a cause of headaches is far more common). Researchers have reported that women who have intercourse regularly are more likely to have regular menstrual cycles. And sex may be a pretty good germ fighter. German investigators reported that white blood cell counts went up in men after sexual activity. That's in keeping with other research suggesting that sex gives the immune system a boost.

Granted, these studies are too small or short to be anything but speculative and suggestive. The fact is that much of the research into health and sexual activity has focused on how illness adversely affects sexuality, a worthy topic, but it might be revealing to turn the tables and pay a little more attention to the vice versa: how sexual activity may have ameliorating effects on illness.


We're resting easier (sometimes longer) these days because of the laurels that sleep is winning for its health benefits — or, more precisely, because of the evidence of all the bad things that can happen when we don't get enough of it. Several epidemiologic studies — the kind that involve following thousands of people over many years — have shown that "short sleepers" put on more pounds than people who sleep seven to eight hours a night, which is the amount that seems optimal for most adults. Other studies have linked skimping on sleep to the high-risk pool for heart attacks, diabetes, and early death. The risks are more pronounced for people who sleep less than five hours a night, but the danger seems to extend to those averaging less than six. It's easy to poke holes in epidemiologic evidence, but short-term experiments in sleep deprivation have lent credence to these findings. When healthy volunteers stay awake for long stretches, it wreaks hormonal havoc: levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, go up, and leptin and ghrelin, hormones that influence appetite, get thrown out of whack.

Of course, lack of sleep has a very direct effect on the brain, influencing memory, mood, and attention. We've all experienced grogginess after not getting enough sleep. Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, a Harvard sleep expert who has campaigned for limiting the working hours of medical residents, says averaging four hours of sleep a night for four or five days results in the same level of cognitive impairment as being legally drunk.

Can you sleep too much? Several of the epidemiologic studies of sleep show that long sleep (nine hours nightly or more) is associated with just as many health problems as short sleep, if not more. But it's probably more often the case that an underlying illness (depression is a prime example) causes people to sleep more, not the other way around.

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