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18 Apr 2023 (Last updated 24 Sep 2023)

A holistic approach to fighting stress

Sexual Health 8 min read
Smile Makers Author
A holistic approach to fighting stress

Three ways to fight stress: sex, sleep and nutrition.

Updated April 2023 for Stress Awareness Month.

Stress is a common problem we all have to deal with in some way as part of modern-day living. Many factors can influence stress, like work or social pressures, impacting our health, including our sex life and sleep. Thankfully, being aware of our wellbeing and looking after it can help combat this, and yes! It does include masturbating - yeehaw.

The effects of stress on libido.

Here's something we often forget when it comes to stress, it impacts our sex life! Both are an integral part of our wellbeing, highlighted by one of our favorite authors and sex educators Emily Nagoski - whose well-researched books include Burnout: The Secret of Unlocking the Stress Cycle AND Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex LifeWe learned in the former, that the stress cycle can cause emotional exhaustion or burnout.

What is the stress cycle?

Ah, the stress cycle! It's like a wild rollercoaster ride for our bodies. You know that feeling when your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, and you're ready to fight or flee? That's the stress cycle kicking in. It's our body's way of preparing us for action. But if we don't deal with the stress, it's like being stuck on that rollercoaster - and nobody wants to be stuck on a ride forever! So, it's important to take steps to relax and get off the stress cycle before it has long-term impacts on our wellbeing.

During this stress cycle, certain hormones are released. The main stress hormones are adrenaline and cortisol, which are released by the adrenal glands. Adrenaline increases heart rate and blood pressure, while cortisol regulates glucose metabolism and suppresses immune function. These hormones prepare the body for action in the face of danger, but in constant or regular state of stress can have a negative impact on our overall health - and, indeed, our sexual wellness, especially our libido and desire.

🥴 Hormonally.

When cortisol (the stress hormone) levels rise for prolonged periods, our sex hormones become suppressed, lowering libido and decreasing the desire to engage in sexual activity. Ongoing stress can impact our pituitary gland, which controls the adrenal glands, thyroid, and ovaries. Without properly functioning ovaries, our menstrual cycle is adversely affected, which may result in irregular periods, disrupted hormones, and diminished libido. In short, too much stress can limit your pleasure!

🥱 Fatigue.

Sleep is needed for the brain to function correctly and for the body to restore itself. Sleep deprivation is associated with chronic health problems affecting how we think, learn, work, react, and interact with others. Unfortunately, inadequate sleep directly contributes to stress, just as stress contributes to sleep disturbances. Sleep deprivation disrupts our hormones and decreases testosterone, essential for female and male sex drive. Not getting enough sleep also negatively impacts our energy levels and mood, making us less likely to want to get between the sheets. A study suggests a good night's sleep can support a vulva owner's healthy arousal and sexual desire.

Three ways to manage stress.

Everyone experiences stress; it is a normal response to challenging situations. It is not always possible to remove those stressors; thankfully, there are lifestyle practices that can support the management of stress - and, small things we can do to break the stress cycle. Exercise that makes you feel good, mindfulness apps that encourage meditative states, taken a few deep breaths... Then there's leaning on other. Whether it's our social network, or a therapist, needing people is a fact of life, not a sign of weakness - and it's power is not to be forgotten. Talking of others...

1. Have sex or masturbate.

Sexual intimacy can increase feelings of connection and social support, which can help us destress.

So, stress can withhold sexual pleasure, but at the same time sexual pleasure can help us destress? We know, mind-boggling. But, stick with us. It is all interlinked, and understanding more about how different parts of of our health impact each other is SUPER helpful. Our wellbeing is all one big venn diagram, really!

There are many ways to reignite your sexual desire, and lots of reasons why sex and stress are connected! 

🫶 Mood-boosting chemicals

Ever heard of the DOSE hormones (a fancy word for chemicals). The acronym stands for Dopamine, Oxytocin, Seratonin and Endorphins - something that the book Moody by Amy Thomson is really good at breaking down. They're also considered neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells in the brain and nervous system, while hormones are chemicals produced by glands that travel through the bloodstream to affect other parts of the body. The DOSE chemicals do both! During sex (either with a partner or solo) and climax, all of these hormones are released.

    • Dopamine helps regulate mood, motivation, and focus. It's like the brain's cheerleader, helping us feel a sense of accomplishment
    • Oxytocin is sometimes called the "love hormone" and is involved in social bonding, trust, and intimacy. It also helps lower cortisol levels!
    • Serotonin regulates mood and contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being. Low levels of stress are associated with increased stress and anxiety, so a top up is always good!
    • Endorphins are natural painkillers that can also produce feelings of pleasure and euphoria. They also have a calming effect on the body's stress response, helping to lower heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

Next time we're stressed, to break the cycle, let's try seeking sexual pleasure. Stressful work call? Take a 15 minute pleasure break (work from home, though we're not judging).

2. Prioritize healthy sleep habits.

So, new life motto: forget counting sheep, masturbate to get to sleep! Sleep is the cornerstone of good health. Getting enough sleep is critical for supporting healthy hormones and stress responses. Good sleep should look like 7-9 hours, about 30 minutes latency (time spent falling asleep), and waking up refreshed.

😴 Other things we can do to get a better night's sleep...

  • Establish a regular bedtime and waking time.
  • Reserve bed for sleep and sex. Time spent in bed doing other tasks diminishes the association between bed and sleep.
  • Ensure a dark, quiet, relaxing temperature for sleeping and ensure the pillow and mattress are comfortable.
  • Avoid exposure to bright lights before bed, including blue light from screens.
  • Avoid mentally stimulating, stressful, or alerting activity within two hours of bedtime. We're thinking, reading the news is a no-no.

3. Find some nutritional hacks.

We asked clinical nutritionist Anushka Malcolm from Bare Health Studio to share some stress and nutrition wisdom. There are a few specific healthy food practices that she encourages as part of a balanced diet for optimal stress management, improved sleep, and better sex.

🥜 A love of whole-foods.

Think more from the earth and less from a packet. Studies have shown that consuming a diet rich in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. These physiological changes may contribute to improved stress resilience and mood regulation. Additionally, the act of preparing and eating whole foods can be a relaxing and enjoyable experience, which can also help reduce stress.

🥚 Don't forget to add protein.

Protein is essential for neurotransmitter production and hormone synthesis- without it, we can experience negative impacts on our stress response, sleep, and hormone health. Protein sources include fish, meat, poultry, quinoa, legumes, dairy, eggs and nuts, and seeds.

🥬 Enjoy dark and leafy greens.

Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, chard, kale, and rocket, are a brilliant source of magnesium, an essential nutrient. Magnesium is fundamental for nervous system support, stress management, and regular restful sleep.

Studies have shown that magnesium can reduce anxiety and improve mood. This may be because magnesium helps regulate the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol, and promotes relaxation by interacting with receptors in the brain that help regulate the activity of nerve cells - phew!

Three sex tips to help relieve stress.

Stressed spelt backwards may well be desserts, but we have some much sweeter advice. Seek some sexual release instead!

1. Don't forget to breathe during sex.

Yes, a top tip for mindfulness too, but there is so much power in acknowledging our breath during stimulation. Especially if we want to reach climax. We tend to hold our breath when trying to orgasm, but our body needs oxygen for blood flow, which makes for pleasurable sensations. Breathe deep and feel the difference. 

2. Destress with a vibrator.

When we feel stressed, it might be hard to get in the mindset of pleasure. And, sometimes efficiency is what we need - especially when we feel time poor. Enter: a lipstick vibrator designed for reconnecting with pleasure. Especially if it's been a while. The longer-term affects of stress might cause us to disconnect with our sexual selves, which is likely to happen to us all at some point. The Whisperer by Smile Makers is shaped to be a gentle, squishy, fun way to get back into physical stimulation - and, it's super silent!

3. Don't stress about orgasms.

It's not just orgasm that gives us a surge in stress relieving hormones - sexual arousal can also stimulate the release. Orgasms are GREAT but, pleasure is the measure - or, 'destresser' in this context. We put too much pressure on orgasms, which can stress us out and make us not enjoy sex -  solo or partnered. In fact, studies have shown that when we don’t think too much about orgasming, that’s when we will actually let go.

When we're really not in the mind set for physical stimulation, we can explore pleasure in other ways - such as listening to erotica, or lighting a sex candle.

Now, we're off to stick post-it reminders around the office: less stress, more sexual caress! 😉

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