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Use It or Lose It? How Masturbation Relates to Erection Health

Masturbation in moderation appears to have beneficial effects on erectile function. So it’s time to discard all those old wives’ tales about its adverse effects.

It looks as though masturbation has been getting a bad rap. It turns out that being the master of your domain on a regular basis probably helps to keep your equipment in good working order.

Or, as clinical sexologist Gloria Brame, Ph.D., told MensHealth.com, pleasuring yourself is “part of a healthy sex life. It’s totally safe and harmless. It’s healthier than brushing your teeth every day.”

And Brame is hardly the only health professional to give masturbation her stamp of approval. Susan Kellogg Spadt, Ph.D., R.N., director of sexual medicine at Philadelphia’s Pelvic & Sexual Health Institute, tells EverydayHealth.com that it is a natural physical function — “as natural as going to the bathroom or breathing air.” And you can’t get much more natural than that.

You Won’t Go Blind

While the experts may differ about the need for regular masturbation and/or sexual activity with a partner to keep your private parts working well, most seem to agree that masturbation — if not taken to excess — is a perfectly healthy pursuit. And for those whose masturbatory behavior during puberty was inhibited by a parental warning that it could bring on blindness, most experts hasten to add that that too is a myth.

In fact, there are some scientists and medical professionals who argue that failure to masturbate or have sex with a partner on a regular basis may eventually lead to erection problems. Their underlying theory goes back to the old “use it or lose it” school of thought that suggests a penis that is getting little action will in time lose its ability to achieve and maintain an erection.

Finnish Study Cited

Perhaps the ultimate expression of the “use it or lose it” philosophy came in a Finnish study that was published in the July 2008 issue of the “American Journal of Medicine,” according to WebMD.com. For that study, researchers in the Urology Department of Finland’s Tampere University Hospital tracked the sexual activity of nearly 1,000 men in their 50s, 60s, and 70s for a period of five years. They found that men who had sex less than once a week were twice as likely to develop symptoms of ED.

In the article documenting their study, the Finnish researchers conclude that “the result indicated that regular sexual activity preserves potency in a similar fashion as physical exercise maintains functional capacity.”

While the jury is still out, there appears to be a good deal of evidence that masturbation helps to preserve erectile function.

While the jury is still out, there appears to be a good deal of evidence that masturbation helps to preserve erectile function.

Urologist Juha Koskimaki, a member of the Finnish research team that conducted the study, said that while the study focused primarily on the effects of regular sexual intercourse on male sexual function, it is likely that masturbation would have similar effects. He told WebMD that both intercourse and masturbation appear to protect the blood vessels and nerve fibers responsible for erectile function and prevent scarring of the penis’s spongy erectile tissue that must fill with blood to create an erection.

Many Urologists Disagree

Not all urologists agree with the findings from the Finnish study, although most acknowledge that infrequent sexual activity is associated with erection problems. They say, however, that there is no real evidence that infrequent sex causes ED or that regular sexual intercourse and/or masturbation will help to preserve male sexual function.

One such dissenting opinion comes from Irwin Goldstein, M.D., medical director of the sexual medicine program at Alvarado Medical Hospital Center in San Diego, California. He told WebMD that “having sex is good, masturbating is good, but the concept that men have to go out and have sex to preserve erectile function is bogus.”

Another prominent dissenter to the findings from the Finnish study is Ira D. Sharlip, M.D., a clinical professor of urology at the University of California at San Francisco. Sharlip told WebMD that infrequent sex is more likely to be a consequence of erection problems rather than a cause.

Regular Erections Vital

Most urologists agree that regular erections, such as the spontaneous erections that occur during the REM sleep cycle, provide sufficient exercise to keep the male genitals in good working order, even in the absence of intercourse and/or masturbation. However, since both masturbation and sexual intercourse require erections to be truly successful and satisfactory, it seems clear that such activity couldn’t hurt and may well help as part of an overall strategy to maintain and preserve erectile function.

Too much masturbation -- often linked to an addiction to pornography -- may be counterproductive to the maintenance of optimal erectile function.

Too much masturbation — often linked to an addiction to pornography — may be counterproductive to the maintenance of optimal erectile function.

As healthy and normal a part of sexual function as masturbation may be, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be overdone. In other words, you can have too much of a good thing. In an article posted at MensJournal.com, writer Jack deTar points to “emerging evidence . . . that overly frequent masturbation — aroused by the vast cornucopia of freely available porn we enjoy today — is leading to” serious erection problems for some men.

Benefits Acknowledged

To be clear, deTar freely acknowledges that normal levels of masturbation can lead to a number of benefits, including the reduction of anxiety that theoretically may help to unburden the body’s overstressed immune system and a lower risk of prostate cancer among middle age men. It is overdoing it, often a consequence of frequent exposure to pornography, that can make masturbation counterproductive.

Like almost anything else, masturbation can become addictive, according to most medical professionals. However, coupling that relatively benign addiction with increased exposure to porn can eventually lead to problems. Elizabeth Waterman, Psy.D., a psychologist at the Morningside Recovery Center in Newport, California, told MensJournal.com that a porn addiction and the masturbation that usually accompanies it can lead over time to a desensitization that makes it difficult to enjoy real-life sexual experiences.

Effects of Porn Watching

“When people start watching porn, there is a huge flood of dopamine in the brain,” says Waterman. “Over time, the receptors that were once very sensitive become less sensitive, and normal physical intimacy does not produce enough dopamine to stimulate the dopamine receptors.”

Making matters even worse, says Waterman, the erection problems that arise from overexposure to porn can lead to increased anxiety over performance, making the problem both physiological and psychological in character. As a result, she says, “people can start developing real self-confidence issues. They can feel irritable, sleepless, frustrated, anxious. One can lose relationships quite easily from it.”

How Much Is Too Much?

All of which begs the question: How much is too much? Sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, according to Waterman. The only way to know that the cycle of porn-masturbation has reached unhealthy levels is when it begins to interfere with your work life, social life, and/or sex life. If you find that you are experiencing these sorts of problems, Waterman suggests that you stop watching porn and do all that you can to resist the temptation to masturbate. In 6 to 12 weeks, she says, your brain should rebound to more normal levels of dopamine sensitivity.

If this article has piqued your interest and you would like to stay on top of the latest developments of interest to health consumers, particularly on matters of sexual health and function, check out our blog on a regular basis.

 

Don Amerman has spent more than three decades in the business of writing and editing. During the last 15 years, his focus has been on freelance writing. For almost all of his writing, He has done all of his own research, both online and off, including telephone and face-to-face interviews where possible. Don Amerman on Google+