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Sugar and Sex - Is There a Connection?

Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D.

The title is of this long awaited article in the second supplement series is misleading. This story is not really about sugar and sex so much as their common denominator beta-endorphin. In this article, I want to cover several topics which will include:

  • Understanding how sex and sexuality fit into the sugar sensitive equation.
  • How untreated (or unconscious) sugar sensitive sexuality can affect you and drive your behavior.
  • How sugar sensitive sexual physiology can affect your capacity for intimacy (for both men and women).
  • How your sexuality can enhance your recovery. How your recovery can enhance your sexuality.

The Role Of Beta-Endorphin In Sexuality

I started thinking about this subject when I was asked to give a talk to a singles group. The title was Sugar and Sex: Is There a Connection? Of course I knew there was but I was a little short on scientific facts to back up what my own experience had told me. I went back to the on-line Library of Congress to ask some questions. Most of what I found was published about rat studies rather than people studies, but it sure was a fascinating way to begin to think about the role of beta-endorphin in sexuality. Let me share some of the things I found.

  1. The beta-endorphin system contributes to sexual motivation. Sexual motivation (which means the desire to copulate - remember these are rats ;-) ) is heightened with higher levels of beta-endorphin. Lower beta-endorphin and the sexual motivation decreased.
  2. Beta-endorphin increases sexual appetite but diminishes sexual performance in males.
  3. Ejaculation leads to a release of beta-endorphin.
  4. Vaginal stimulation causes a release of beta-endorphin.
  5. Semen contains high levels of beta-endorphin.
  6. There are beta-endorphin receptors in mucosa.
  7. Sexual receptivity in females is reduced by beta-endorphins. After the male rats had ejaculated, the females were no longer interested.

What These Might Mean

Let's start by putting a few caveats on what I am going to say. We know there is a big leap between laboratory findings with rats and complex human interactions. But I think some of this material is both instructive and helpful in making sense of some of the behaviors I have lived and have seen in my own clinical practice. Let's first look at the lab findings and then talk about the interactive implications.

  1. The beta-endorphin system contributes to sexual motivation. Lower beta-endorphin and the sexual motivation decreased.

    As you know, sugar sensitive people have a heightened BE response to alcohol and sugar. They will also have a heightened response to sexual cues. If BE is activated, sexual interest goes up. This explains why wine with dinner may make people more interested in sex later. It can also explain why the marketing promise of chocolate being a turn on has some truth to it.

    Women have the highest levels of BE at ovulation. Sexual interest often peaks mid cycle and then drops proportionately as BE levels plummet towards menstruation. As the beta-endorphin levels drops, the woman will crave chocolate, feel inadequate and experience isolation distress. When you think of this, it makes sense to think of the female body being wired to maximize the potential for pregnancy.

  2. Beta-endorphin increases sexual appetite but diminishes sexual performance in males.

    This may account for the gap between the promise and the action in sugar sensitive men plied with wine and dessert. Laboratories equate “performance” with the ability to maintain an erection. Real people may measure “intimacy” rather than erection, so we may not have really helpful data from the lab on this one. But this finding offers some wonderful insight on the high confidence/cold feet syndrome. It can also explain while a meal of pasta, wine and dessert leads to a huge sense of feeling safe but trouble in sexual connection, while a meal of protein and veggies with sex for dessert leads to euphoria.

  3. Ejaculation leads to a release of beta-endorphin.
    Vaginal stimulation causes a release of beta-endorphin.
    Semen contains high levels of beta-endorphin.
    There are beta-endorphin receptors in mucosa.
  4. No surprise that it appears that sexual activity between men and women is deigned to be an experience of biochemical “connection.” Each part of heterosexual sexual activity seems to heighten the BE effect. In many ways, the system is biochemically designed to be an elegant way to encourage people to connect on a sexual level.

Because sugar sensitive people have materially lower levels of BE, they will experience a heightened response to the effects of BE release. Not only will you like sugar and alcohol; you are also likely to like sex. You may have experientially learned that sexual interaction and orgasm not only creates euphoria, but also stimulates a sense of being valued, connected and feeling wanted. This is BE levels going up.

Why Sex May be Really Important to You

Vaginal stimulation creates a significant release of beta-endorphin. It effects a more than 100% increase in the pain threshold (mediated by beta-endorphin). In fact, because many of you may feel inadequate, less than, isolated and disconnected much of the time, the call of sexual activity may be even more compelling. Sexual encounters may be a critical contributor to your feeling okay. Sexual encounters may create an opportunity for powerful connection and intimacy.

However, there is a risk involved. If your sugar sensitive biochemistry remains imbalanced, sugar or alcohol priming may trigger your desire for sex. Or your sexual activity may prime you to binge on sugars. Or either may activate a huge spike in BE and create a major withdrawal as the effects wear off. Beta-endorphin withdrawal can account for why women look for chocolate after her partner leaves. Withdrawal will effect loss of euphoria, separation anxiety and isolation distress. Euphoria crashes into loneliness and the quest for the perfect night goes on.

Sexual Addiction

The sugar sensitive person may struggle with sexual addiction without understanding the power of BE reactivity that is operating. This draw and reliance on the BE effects may be masked as a commitment to find the perfect partner. New encounters can heighten the BE effect of the sexual interaction by adding the component of novelty. New situations and risk both heighten the BE impact of a sexual encounter.

Sexual addiction for the sugar sensitive person may also manifest in masturbation. Many of you may take care of the feelings of isolation and inadequacy by using self-stimulation to provide solace and comfort.

The Spike Effect

Much of the BE risk inherent in sexual activity of any sort comes with the “spike” effect - a large flash, followed by a concomitant drop and BE withdrawal. Sexual beta-endorphin is no different from any other kind of endorphin action. A rush will set you up; a warm and flooding cascade will heal you. Sexual encounters that evoke a long, slow infusion of beta-endorphin can be a part of an overall BE raising recovery program. Relational intimacy does not carry the same associated risk behavior. This type of sexual encounter seems to flow from recovery. As your sugar sensitive biochemistry becomes more and more stable, you will be drawn to those activities which reinforce living in a heightened state of BE. Activities such as yoga, meditation, and tai chi evoke flexibility, endurance, stability, groundedness and compassion.

Relational intimacy seems to evoke the same cumulative effect. Emotional stability fosters the interest in such activities. And the activity reinforces emotional stability. By shifting the BE effect from spike to flow, you move from priming to healing.

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