Masturbation and immunity: Is there a link?


There are claims that masturbation can influence the strength of the immune system, but does any scientific evidence support this? Medical News Today considers the science behind this claim and speaks to experts to find out more.

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Can masturbating influence the immune system, and if so, for how long? We investigate. Image credit: Eddie Pearson/Stocksey

Masturbation is a normal, healthy activity — yet myths about it still abound. That is partly because this activity is, even today, highly stigmatized in many societies around the world, perhaps because it can be pursued outside of heteronormative, monogamous relationships.

Meanwhile, studies suggest that the pleasure of masturbation can bring various health benefits, including stress relief, improvements in mood, and pain relief, including the relief of menstrual cramps.

There is also some anecdotal evidence that links masturbation with either increased or decreased immunity. What does the research say about this, and is there enough evidence one way or the other? We investigate.

The studies that look at the potential impact of masturbation on the immune system are few and far between. Moreover, they are affected by the gender data gap, so there is almost no information about the alleged effect as far as female bodies are concerned.

One study from 2004 — published in the journal Neuroimmunomodulation — asked 11 male volunteers to masturbate until orgasm. The researchers drew blood from these participants as they were masturbating, as well as during a control set-up, when no sexual activity was involved.

They then measured the presence of various markers of immune system activity in the blood — leukocytes, lymphocytes, lipopolysaccharide-induced interleukin 6, and tumor necrosis factor alpha — during control conditions, as well as before orgasm, and at 5 and 45 minutes after the volunteers achieved orgasm through masturbation.

The study found that masturbation temporarily increased the activity of some components of the immune system, namely leukocytes, and in particular natural killer cells, which fight cancer tumor cells and cells infected by viruses.

Throughout the years, many media outlets have cited this study to support the idea that masturbation could help improve the immune response — yet health experts warn that the findings should be taken with more than a pinch of salt.

“First, a sample of 11 individuals is not good enough” to prove that masturbation benefits immune function, Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University, told Medical News Today.

“Second, there are no repeat trials on these individuals,” he cautioned.

“Third, they are healthy volunteers, which could cause bias and [a] lack of generalizability — e.g., to different age groups and people with disease histories. Fourth, it is not easy to [determine] if masturbation causes [a] spike in immunoprotective molecules or [if this is due to] the accompanying reduction in stress.”

– Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani

“Finally,” Dr. Khubchandani emphasized, “the bigger concern is about the transient rise in immune markers that could not guarantee long-term immunity enhancement or protection from diseases.”

While the authors of the initial study conducted a “follow-up,” this research did not include the original participants, nor did it focus on masturbation, specifically. The new study, published in European Urology in 2016, included self-reported data from 31,925 male participants who answered questionnaires about ejaculation frequency over a period of 18 years.

The research aimed to confirm whether there was a correlation between the frequency of ejaculation and the risk of prostate cancer. It did, indeed, find a “beneficial association” between more frequent ejaculation and a lower risk of prostate cancer.

However, as the study authors acknowledged, there were limitations, including the fact that self-reported data can be inaccurate and incomplete and that “The literature exploring the role of sexual activity in the etiology of [prostate cancer] is inconsistent.”

If research into the effects of masturbation on the immunity of male bodies is limited and inconsistent, research into these possible effects on female bodies is even more lacking.

Only one study, published in The Journal of Sexual Medicinein 2014, appears to have looked at whether and how sexual activity, including masturbation, in females might influence their immune response.

This research analyzed data from two cohorts that included both male and female participants. It specifically focused on the link between parameters of depression and sexual activity, and how their interaction might influence immunity.

The study concluded that in female participants with high levels of depression, partnered sexual activity resulted in lower markers of immunity. However, the frequency of masturbation was not associated with immunity markers.

Many questions remain unanswered, including those about the potential relationship between depression, various forms of sexual activity, and immunity in females.

According to the limited data provided by the studies on male masturbation, the act of self-pleasuring appears to boost immune cell activity.

Dr. Jerry Bailey, who specializes in men’s health and holistic health practices, explained to MNT that “The increase in arousal state and release of hormones during and after orgasm boosts immune cells and hormones.”

“This effect,” he claimed, “can last up to 24 hours post-orgasm. However, the greatest of benefits are within 60 minutes of orgasm.”

Are any of these possible benefits enough to help prevent viral infections? Health experts emphasize that, as appealing as the idea might be, masturbation does not have a strong enough influence on the immune system to help it keep pathogens at bay.

“Masturbation is not for long-term or sustained immunity development,” Dr. Khubchandani stressed.

He did, however, acknowledge that masturbating can bring some other benefits, such as “help[ing] with good sleep, stress relief, [and] mood elevation.”

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