The Chemistry of the Female Orgasm

When we think of sex and orgasms, we rarely think of them in terms of chemistry. But when we think more deeply, the phrase ‘sexual chemistry’ isn’t far off. Of course, that refers to the attraction we may (or may not) have for our partner or partners, but to achieve orgasm doesn’t have to mean to have a partner.

Nor does the chemistry of the orgasm stop at the sexual attraction we have for our partners. During the sexual response that ultimately leads to orgasm, a female body releases a range of chemicals that are responsible for the psychological effects of reaching sexual climax.

The female orgasm occurs as a result of stimulation of the vulva which comprises of the inner and outer labia (lips) and the clitoris. This can be as a result of masturbation or by stimulation from a partner and can take up to 20 minutes of direct stimulation. It’s in stark contrast to the generally accepted, often male centric, view that a female will orgasm through vaginal penetration using fingers, a penis or a typically penis-shaped sex toy.

A female’s sexual response and orgasm goes through four stages – anticipation, tingle, plateau and orgasm. During each stage, feelings of pleasure increase, building up to the intense muscle spasms and rhythmic contractions of an orgasm. During this time, a cocktail of feel-good chemicals are released.

The Chemical Quartet +1 of Ecstasy

Oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and oestrogen are all released during the female orgasm, and they all have a positive effect on feelings and emotions.

Oxytocin the Cuddle Hormone

Often referred to as the love hormone, oxytocin is a hormone that’s released in large amounts at childbirth, and is responsible for flooding a woman’s body with love and stimulating the nipples, ready for breastfeeding. It then continues to play a role in milk production and maternal instincts and behaviour.

However, it is now also known to be released during the sexual response, [1] triggering feelings of love and intimacy and the desire for bonding, attachment and closeness. Studies have found that levels of oxytocin in the blood plasma rise significantly during orgasm, [2] further supporting the theory that oxytocin is released during orgasm.

Oxytocin increases the desire many females have for close contact after orgasm, which in turn promotes feelings of calm, helping to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety [3] and promoting relaxation and deep sleep.

Serotonin the Mood Regulator

Serotonin is a chemical produced by the nerve cells and is responsible for stabilising our moods. It therefore helps to keep anxiety and depression in check. Low levels of serotonin are found in individuals experiencing depression, suggesting that higher levels promote feelings of happiness. It also plays a role in regulating appetite and sleep.

Studies have shown that the area of the brain that’s responsible for controlling the release of serotonin become more active during the female orgasm. These same studies have shown that this can have a pain relieving effect, revealing that women can actually feel less physical pain [4] as a result of having an orgasm.

Dopamine the Pleasure and Reward Stimulator

Dopamine is a neurochemical, a chemical produced by the brain, that stimulates the pleasure and reward centre of the brain. It’s connected to feelings of pleasure and enjoyment such as when eating certain foods, the thrill of certain experiences and the highs of a gambling win.Lo w dopamine levels are associated with depression, anxiety, lethargy and a lack of pleasure.

Unsurprisingly then, dopamine is also connected to the feelings of desire and pleasure experienced during the sexual response and orgasm. During orgasm, the blood is flooded with dopamine, reinforcing the positive feelings of pleasure.

It’s also thought that dopamine helps the brain ‘learn’ that the reward of an orgasm has so many benefits, so that it works on ways to stimulate this reward further, by wanting more – the so-called pleasure and reward of dopamine release. This could even help to shape our sexual partner preferences.[5]

Endorphins, the Natural Pain Relievers

Following on from the news that serotonin can help to reduce pain, the brain also releases endorphins, that are the body’s natural painkillers.[6] This is thought to explain why it can feel pleasurable to experiment with otherwise uncomfortable sensations such as pinching and hair pulling during sexual play.

Endorphins, often known as feel-good chemicals, also promote feelings of relaxed sleepiness and happiness, the familiar feelings of post-orgasmic bliss.

The Role of Oestrogen in the Female Orgasm – and Beyond?

Oestrogen is an important female sex hormone, responsible for everything from female sexual characteristics and emotional wellbeing to bone health. As a woman ages and enters her perimenopausal years, her natural oestrogen levels begin to decline until the menopause and beyond.

This decline in oestrogen is responsible for the majority, if not all, of the physical and emotional symptoms of the perimenopause and the menopause. Physical symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, weight gain, muscle mass loss, loss of bone strength and headaches. Emotional symptoms include mood swings, brain fog, cognitive difficulty, depression and anxiety.

So it’s clear that it can be a difficult time, with symptoms potentially lasting a decade or more. Medical interventions such as hormone replacement therapy, or HRT, and natural remedies including the consumption of plant oestrogens, help to increase the level of oestrogen in a woman’s body, helping to provide welcome relief from symptoms.

There is new evidence that when a woman reaches orgasm, her levels of oestrogen increase. [7] This could therefore have significant consequences for the management of perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms, without the threat of side effects such as an increased risk of breast cancer. Studies so far have only been carried out on premenopausal women, opening a potential research floodgate for more, much needed, research.

References

[1] Magon, N., & Kalra, S. (2011). The orgasmic history of oxytocin: Love, lust, and labor. Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism, 15 Suppl 3(Suppl3), S156–S161. https://doi.org/10.4103/2230-8210.84851

[2] Carmichael, M. S., Warburton, V. L., Dixen, J., & Davidson, J. M. (1994). Relationships among cardiovascular, muscular, and oxytocin responses during human sexual activity. Archives of sexual behavior, 23(1), 59–79. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01541618

[3] Love T. M. (2018). The impact of oxytocin on stress: the role of sex. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 23, 136–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2018.06.018

[4] Thomson, H. (2018, March 14). Women don't need to 'switch off' to Climax, orgasm study shows. New Scientist. Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/2150180-women-dont-need-to-switch-off-to-climax-orgasm-study-shows/

[5] Coria-Avila, G. A., Herrera-Covarrubias, D., Ismail, N., & Pfaus, J. G. (2016). The role of orgasm in the development and shaping of partner preferences. Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology, 6, 31815. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v6.31815

[6] Endorphins: The Brain's natural pain reliever. Harvard Health. (2021, July 20). Retrieved July 7, 2022, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/endorphins-the-brains-natural-pain-reliever

[7] van Anders, S. M., Brotto, L., Farrell, J., & Yule, M. (2009). Associations among physiological and subjective sexual response, sexual desire, and salivary steroid hormones in healthy premenopausal women. The journal of sexual medicine, 6(3), 739–751. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2008.01123.x