If you haven’t heard, it’s sex month on the site! We wanted to kick off a month of sex talk with a little science and whole lot of kindness. Reproductive psychotherapist Nicole Ohebshalom generously offered to run us through the psychobiology of sexuality — yes, which means what happens to your brain before, during, and after sex! Read on for an education on pleasure, orgasms, and the connection between the body and the brain during sex.
You are currently a Reproductive Psychotherapist, but I know you’ve held many other roles including a Registered Nurse and even trained as a psychotherapist with experience in women’s trauma and functional nutritional therapy. What led you down this path and what are you currently concentrating on in regards to women’s health?
I began incorporating the healing arts, such as a daily meditation practice and food techniques, into my life as a child. When it was time to choose a career, I knew I wanted to work in women’s health, which lead me to begin my career as a Registered Nurse in an infertility and endocrinology center in NYC. At that time, I was being trained in yoga, meditation and integrative nutrition. The doctors allowed me to bring these tools to the center. This was back in 2005 so, in my eyes, these doctors were pioneers in opening their doors for me to bring more holistic methods into their medical center. Later, I opened a women’s wellness space in NYC for 7 years. There was so many women coming to me with trauma issues and I had an innate talent in psychology that I wanted to explore. I went back to school for psychology with a focus in women’s trauma. I moved to Israel to focus on my research with women’s sexual self-schema, development and hyphenated cultural identity, while keeping a practice in helping women heal trauma and hormonal issues using psychology, food and meditation. Now, I travel and work between San Francisco and Israel.
My focus is for women to understand and trust themselves. I’m a big fan of education so my clients leave understanding the way their bodies work and have tools to take care of themselves. I want my clients to be their own healers and have the tools they need years after working together. I work with women that are experiencing hormonal issues, such as PCOS, PMS, irregular bleeds, infertility, and egg freezing. I also work with women that have experienced various forms of trauma. In my work, I use food therapy, psychological coaching, lifestyle techniques and meditation to help women heal.
Alright, sex! Let’s get into it. We’re going to be talking about the psychobiology of sexuality — can you first define, for us laypeople, what exactly is the psychobiology of sexuality?
Sexuality is an elaborate dance in the brain and body that motivates and focuses us in every area of our life. It’s in the way we feel in every moment that drives a feedback loop response with our hormones and neurotransmitters causing a certain direction in our emotional and physical health.
In understanding the psychobiology of our sexuality, it’s clear that the static view of our body performing in a certain way every single day throughout our lifetime is not normal, even though this is the belief that society, such as magazines and medical system, is trying to have us believe about ourselves. The way we are hormonally and neurologically wired has a lot to do with how we think and feel, and vice versa. Understanding this can help us make hormonally intelligent choices, such as the way we sniff out a potential mate, to our ability to connect to another before and during sex. When we understand the responses our hormones and emotions have to our thinking and lifestyle then our sexuality can be used in an easy and creative way in everything we do.
Sexuality is about the enjoyment with your own body. For us to feel turned on in the bedroom, we need to feel turned on in our daily lives. By pleasure, I mean pleasing your senses all day. It’s challenging to fully surrender to pleasure during sex if the pleasure in our lives is dry. When we receive pleasure in our own sexuality, then enjoying our own body with someone else’s, has a different psychological and hormonal impact. This can be a big distinction, because many women look at sex as a way to please their partners. But, if we want to have a healthy libido (and not just a libido used for sex) we won’t be thinking about pleasing anyone but yourself. Everyone will have a richer experience because of that. You play a huge role in how you experience your sex drive.
Does sex affect the male brain and the female brain differently?
Profoundly! Sex and falling in love have different effects on the female and male brains. In terms of being horny, testosterone is the star. Men and women with high circulating testosterone levels engage in sex more frequently and have more orgasms. However, women falling in love can experience an increase in dopamine levels which enhances our levels of testosterone. Dopamine activates that reward center that has us chasing and fantasizing about a man. Just thinking of your man and smelling him will increase these levels. Stimulatingly, men will have lower levels of testosterone when falling in love. Having these two different responses might provide us with a chemically bonded feeling, and then men and female libidos are evenly matched.
I also think that the difference in location of our sexual organs influences the way sex affects our brains. Men have all their stuff accessible on the outside of their bodies. Women are more hidden, subtle and complex in nature and with that, our primary sex organ, the clitoris, is inside our bodies. The clitoris is only used for sexual pleasure and has eight thousand nerve endings. The clitoris is the most intense and sensitive part of a woman’s body. Our clitoris is the only organ that is used solely for pleasure and teaches us of our sensitivity. This profoundly affects our brains in and outside of the bedroom. Men don’t have an organ that is used only for pleasure. Fully knowing that our clitoris is beautiful and perfect is central to relaxing and receiving pleasure. I like to recommend to clients to sit in a well-lit room with a hand-free mirror to examine and learn to appreciate all her beauty. Take your time and compliment her beauty. Being fully present in your body and breathing deeply can help you relax as you acknowledge your beauty. This will change the way you relate with yourself and the way your partner will relate with you. As a woman, all you need to do is receive your beauty.
What exactly, by definition, is an orgasm?
Research views orgasm as a person’s peak sexual experience during sex. It’s a heightened subjective experience that produces a catalyst of chemical responses leading a person to a type of euphoric experience. I believe most of this definition is true, but a limited view of orgasm was created by the biomedical and media discourse. To view orgasm as a peak sexual experience is very patriarchal and speaks to the male experience. Women’s experiences of orgasm are often an extended experience and can be as unique as the different shapes and colors of our clitoris. There are a lot of women that have experienced orgasm without intercourse or clitoral stimulation. In my work with women, I am observing that there is no correct way to experience orgasm. It’s your unique way of pleasure within yourself.
The physicality of an orgasm happens far away from the brain itself, so what is the connection between the body and the brain during sex?
I’m so happy you brought this up! This is everything! Women need to first feel safe with the other person and in the environment. We must call the shots, to be comfortable to say our needs and feel that no matter what our boundaries are, they are respected. Also, orgasm begins with how much time and attention the other person is putting on her pleasure and beauty. Lastly, as with many things in nature, timing is everything. Women warm up more slowly and the brain and body need time for the buildup of arousal. Placing our focus on the process will have us connected to our libido. This sets the stage for the brain to allow a woman’s hormones and neurochemistry to bring more pleasure into her body and experience. Women are natural flirts. We are always flirting with our girlfriends and having fun with whatever interests us. Women appreciate beauty within ourselves and around us. When we feel safe in our power and have our focus on our pleasure, then we are already feeling alive and directing our libido for our own pleasure. In this place, a woman trusts her body and her voice, so she listens to the communication between them. Her sexuality is in a turned-on state! Watching a woman relaxed in her own turn-on while ordering a grilled cheese or tending to her garden is uplifting.
Can you walk me through what happens to a female brain during sex, leading up to an orgasm and the orgasm itself?
Estrogen makes us more receptive to sex, while testosterone has us lust and flirt with almost any semi-appropriate partner. During sex, testosterone can influence us to be more assertive and lustful. Simultaneously, sexual activity releases more testosterone, which further revs up our sex drive. Dopamine is triggered by testosterone causing an euphoria feeling and enhancing arousal. Oxytocin becomes released by cuddling, skin contact, and nipple stimulation which also enhances testosterone and dopamine. Our brain is in a series of loops that bring closeness, pleasure and relaxation.
When attention is given to our clitoris, cervix and vagina then more oxytocin and estrogen is released. This can expand our vaginal muscles creating this feeling of wanting to be penetrated because estrogen makes us more sexually receptive and lubricated. It also triggers more oxytocin, so we might want to feel even more connected to the person we are having sex with. During orgasm, there is a decrease blood flow to the frontal cortex, executive brain, while an activation of the somatosensory cortex during orgasm, which is part of the brain that maps out bodily sensations. Then there is an increase of blood flow in the emotional center, amygdala, which is part of the release of oxytocin. Peaking at orgasm, oxytocin causes uterine contractions. At this point, dopamine and endorphins enhance our sensory input and motivates us towards orgasm.
Post orgasm I think we can all say we feel a bit different, more relaxed to say the least. Why is that? What chemicals are released in the brain that cause this?
After orgasm, serotonin peaks. This can make us happy, sexually satisfied and relaxed. Some women feel sleepy and less horny after sex since prolactin is secreted. Other women are ready for round two and three because all of the testosterone, oxytocin, norepinephrine and dopamine that was released during sex and further triggers sexual desire. Oxytocin is part of orgasm and post-orgasm, creating that relaxed feeling, the desire to cuddle and have more skin-to-skin contact.
So…. are orgasms essentially good for the brain? And for us?
Absolutely! It lowers blood pressure and stimulates our immune system, which is relaxing to our body and mind. Orgasm can make us feel nourished, connected, relaxed and elevated! There are a lot of endorphins being released, which enhances blood flow to the vaginal wall that can assist women with fertility issues, menopause, endometriosis and much more. It can lower our cortisol which is one of the main root causes of hormonal imbalances I see in my practice. Orgasm enhances our life force!