What is an orgasm?

Did you learn this in sex-ed? I sure didn’t. I remember knowing, prior to my first orgasm, that I hadn’t had one but I never thought it would be that good. Like, what just happened kind of good. Shortly after this inaugural experience, I remember watching a documentary on opioid addiction and hearing one addict’s description of heroin as “an hour-long orgasm”. No wonder heroin is so addicting, I thought quietly. The good news is we can get a burst of that feel good sensation without the risks of taking a dangerous illicit substance, and it promotes health. Orgasm seems to be the goal of sex for most individuals and couples alike. While plenty of people enjoy sex, just to have sex, most would prefer to end the show with a BOOM. See what I did there?

I digress… There are conflicting perspectives in the academic and peer-reviewed literature about social behaviors with sex, human sexual origins, neurobiology of sexuality, and the entrenched psychology of it all. However, there are few things that are more straight-forward to define but elusive to many, than the orgasm. The scientists Komisaruk and Whipple, leading researchers in sexuality, have defined it as “ intense, pleasurable response to genital [or other] sensory stimulation” (Komisaruk, Beyer-Flores, Whipple 2006). That sounds about right.

Orgasm also has lots of health benefits in addition to just feeling good. It increases the feel-good neurotransmitters in our brain, namely dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. It even helps us to produce our own opioids, endorphins and enkephalins, which help us reduce our perception of pain and reduce stress. It raises our heart rates, dilates our blood vessels, and supports vascular function. The list goes on.

Let’s talk a little bit about anatomy and orgasm. There are different nerves that connect the genitals to the brain. We know the brain is the most important sexual organ, by far, in both men and women. However, pleasurable sexual stimulation communicates from the downstairs areas to the brain via nerve pathways. Those nerves include the pelvic nerve, pudendal and hypogastric nerve, and a few others, but for our purposes, these three are the big players.

The pelvic nerve sends signals from the vagina, cervix, rectum, and urinary bladder. Ladies, do you ever notice you may become aroused more easily if you have to pee? This is due to pressure on those nerves which in turn allows for more pleasure (as long as there’s not TOO MUCH pressure on the bladder). The pelvic nerve can also generate orgasm in men along with the hypogastric nerve that is stimulated from pressure on the prostate (note: guys, no direct prostate stimulation is required to active this nerve, although you may want to find out yourself).

The pudendal nerve is responsible for the clitoris. Yep, this is a very important nerve is how women who have had an orgasm, are usually able to do. Clitoral stimulation is the gateway to other types of orgasms. So what other types are there? Well vaginal and rectal orgasm, both elicited by the pelvic nerve, and some extent the hypogastric nerve (cervix), tend to be more “full body” (Komisaruk, Beyer-Flores, Whipple 2006) as opposed to local genital clitoral orgasms, but both can be achieved with the right guidance.

Once the sensory nerves (nerves from genitals to brain) receive their signals, they travel up the spinal cord, sometimes picking-up input from nipple stimulation and into the part of the brain called the hypothalamus. A major control center for the brain. Within this critical neuro-hub, a collection of neurons called the paraventricular nucleus comes together and releases a neurohormone called “oxytocin”. Studies have demonstrated a significant rise in blood levels of oxytocin in women within 1 and 5 minutes following orgasm ( Carmichael, Warburton, et al., 1994). This helps to facilitate bonding with their partner and, evolutionarily speaking, causes uterine contractions which is important for childbirth but can elicit other pleasurable sensations in non-pregnant females via the pelvic nerve. See how it’s all coming together? Again, no pun intended.

All this to be said for the importance of orgasm in our lives. Partnered or unpartnered we have the capacity to induce orgasm, leading to health benefits and beyond. Couples, whether together for 20 years or 2 nights can enjoy heightened neurochemicals that enhance our brains, cognition, and heart health. My point is, sex and orgasm, although not the same thing, are good for humans.

What can we do to enhance orgasm? You will read again and again in my blogs the foundations of health are exercise, sleep, a healthy diet, and meaningful relationships with ourselves and others. If you are not sleeping, over-exercising (it is a thing), and too stressed out to think, your body is not going to be primed for a luscious orgasm. Instead, it is thinking about survival and not reproduction. It all comes down to evolutionary biology in some ways. If your libido or “seeking system” as Dr. Nan Wise eloquently puts it, is off d/t anxiety, anhedonia, or anger this also can reduce your ability to try for and achieve orgasm. However, if the foundation is solid, and the equipment (male or female) is not working as well as you want it to, lots of tips and tricks exist in the world of hormonal, peptide, and procedural medicine.

More on this and the far more complex topic of libido and it’s relation to orgasm in future posts.

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Writer: Michelle Leary
Writer: Michelle Leary
December 9, 2021

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