Chocolate may induce the body to produce feel-good hormones, but when it comes to the pleasure principle, nothing compares to the Big O. It's a pulse-quickening, blood-pumping, face-flushing, perspiration-producing experience that culminates in convulsions of pleasure.
The big news, though, isn't that having an orgasm feels good but that, according to the latest research, it's good for you, too. At the risk of stating the obvious, having an orgasm is a great stress-reliever. Not only does it lower blood pressure, but it increases blood flow and reduces the risk of heart disease to such an extent that some researchers suggest that having sex three times a week can halve the odds of having a heart attack or stroke.
Having an orgasm is also a proven mood-lifter, largely thanks to three hormones that flood the system during climax. The first is dopamine, which produces a pleasurable sensation. The second, DHEA, boosts the immune system, promotes bone growth, and keeps skin and tissue supple and healthy.
The third hormone is oxytocin. Not only is this a potent natural painkiller -- researchers have found it can reduce pain by 50 percent or more -- but it enhances feelings of pleasure, making women more sensitive to touch even after orgasm. Sometimes called the "cuddle hormone," oxytocin is also released during breast feeling to increase the bonding between mother and child. It can inspire similar feelings of emotional closeness between lovers, too.
To sum up, having an orgasm "is a vital part of what makes women feel better," says Dr. Mary Jane Minkin of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Menopause Physicians in New Haven, Guilford, Shelton and Essex.
HELP IS AT HAND
To paraphrase the immortal words of the woman in the climax-over-coffee scene in When Harry Met Sally, we all want what she's having. For some women, having an orgasm comes easily -- and even in multiple sets. Researchers even have found some women who can get off simply by thinking about sex.
"There are a certain percentage of people who can
think themselves into orgasm," says Ridgefield Center for Healing psychotherapist Dr. Tammy Nelson, author of Getting the Sex You Want, noting that researchers are concentrating on how to create this neural pathway to the brain. "This is a very special type of person. We would all love be that person!"
For others, however, climax seems to be an unreachable goal. Indeed, about 10 to 15 percent of women have never had one.
Sometimes the reasons are physical. Medications, particularly antidepressants such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil, depress the sex drive, as does the birth control pill. If you're not taking anything that might explain the problem, it might be worth seeing a physician, although Minkin says she rarely finds anything physically wrong. "The vast majority of the time, everything's going to be normal," Minkin says. "Almost never do you find something anatomically wrong."
Anatomy does play a role when it comes to having orgasms during intercourse alone, however. Minkin says she sees a huge number of women who think there's something wrong with them because they don't have an orgasm during sex. In fact, few women do. About 75 percent of women don't experience orgasm through penetration alone. "Many women do not achieve orgasm just by vaginal stimulation," she says. "A significant number need direct clitoral stimulation."
Changing positions can make it easy to get dual stimulation, says Nelson. And there is no shortage of "how to" books that can help, including the classic Joy of Sex, Dr. Ruth's Sex for Dummies, and Nelson's own Getting the Sex You Want.
Perhaps the best advice, however, is to figure out what pleases you first. Vibrators can help, but don't rely solely on sex toys. Bear in mind that your partner doesn't come with three speeds and can't duplicate that feeling.
"Explore your anatomy to find ways that pleasure can lead to orgasm. Finding your own orgasm is the way to start," Nelson says. "Teach yourself first, then integrate it into your relationship."
Good sex depends on good communication, experts agree, but it can be a touchy subject to bring up because you don't want to make your partner feel inadequate.
"Always start off with what's already working. `One thing I really appreciate about our sex life now is blank, one thing I'd really like more of is blank,'" Nelson advises. "Most men will be open to it if they think you want to have better sex. Men's number one sexual need is to please their partner. If they can get that information from you, you are helping them to reach the pinnacle of success."
RELAX, JUST DO IT
Often the blockage is more emotional than physical. "An orgasm is really about letting go," Nelson says. "You have to be able to relax and trust what's happening."
For many women, however, that's easier said than done. "Women are often taught it's not OK, for whatever reason, to get our physical needs met," says Dr. Linda Olsen, AKA America's Love Doctor, a relationship therapist in New Canaan. "That's usually related to upbringing."
In some cases, the sheer exhaustion of juggling careers, kids and family responsibilities puts a damper on romance, although often the problem goes deeper than that. Past sexual experiences, particularly negative ones, can inhibit a woman's ability to relax and enjoy herself. Then there are the expectations that people have about their relationships and how much they trust their partner.
"It's all a measure of how safe and secure you feel in the relationship," Olsen says. "If she doesn't feel safe and secure outside the bedroom there's no way she's going to feel safe and secure enough to have an orgasm."
Some people may want to see a therapist to probe the deeper issues. However, Olsen says, it's a mistake to put sex on hold until you've worked through it all. "Typically couples think you need to resolve all these issues but you've got to do it simultaneously," she says. "A really good sexual relationship is the best way to nurture and develop a healthy relationship.
MEASURING THE FACTS
No partner? No problem! According to the Hite Report on Female Sexuality, 94 percent of women achieve orgasm on a regular basis when they are by themselves.
In 1927, Napoleon's great-grand-niece Princess Marie Bonaparte, a French psychoanalyst, published her theory that the optimal distance between clitoris and vagina was 2.5 centimeters for a woman to achieve orgasm during vaginal intercourse. Kim Wallen, professor of behavioral neuroendocrinology at Emory University, thinks she may have been onto something and is testing Bonaparte's data to see if there really is a "rule of thumb" when it comes to female satisfaction.
The first genetic study of the female orgasm found that up to 45 percent of the variation in women's ability to climax may be due to genes. In their research for The Big `O' authors Christine Webber, a psychotherapist, and family planning specialist Dr. David Delvin, found that 47 percent of women climaxed for the first time during masturbation, 32 percent during sexual intercourse, 20 percent through petting, and one percent while sleeping.
The Big `O' reports that, on average, most women experience orgasm for the first time at age 18, but some women's first time didn't happen until they were in their 40s.
What the Research Shows
A study of 58 middle-aged women conducted by researchers at Arizona State University found that physical or sexual behavior with a partner significantly reduced stress and elevated moods. That feel-good sensation carried over to the next day, too.
Research conducted by Dr. Marca Sipski-Alexander in 2001 and 2006 found that about 50 percent of 45 men and 44 percent of 68 women with spinal-cord injuries experienced orgasm with genital stimulation, even though they couldn't technically feel that part of their body.
Danish psychosexual therapist Pia Struck conducted a 2009 study of 500 women ages 18 to 88 who reported having difficulties climaxing. Though 25 percent had never had an orgasm, when they underwent group therapy that encouraged them to view their bodies in a positive light and when they were given stimulating toys to play with, 93 percent achieved orgasm.
Although orgasms can sometimes trigger headaches, a 1990 study conducted by the Headache Clinic at Southern Illinois University found that nearly half of the 57 participating women who reported having sex when they had a migraine said that an orgasm relieved their symptoms.
In a 1999 study of 111 undergraduates at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, researchers found that people who reported having sex once or twice a week over a one-month period also had 30 percent higher levels of immunoglobulin A, an immune-boosting antibody.
Dutch researcher Gert Holstege of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands notes that "at the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings." Holstege took PET scans of 13 women with their partners during orgasm and observed that activity in the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and hippocampus, dropped significantly. These areas control alertness and anxiety, leading Holstege to conclude that "fear and anxiety levels have to go down for orgasm."