Sex and Your Heart: Perfect Storm or Perfect Fit?

older couple kissing

A healthy sex life can boost heart health, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.

Contrary to popular belief, sex doesn’t require the degree of aerobic heart work required by what we generally consider exercise, and shouldn’t replace exercise,” explains Dr. Helene Glassberg, consultative cardiologist at Penn Medicine.

Still, there’s no question that the heart benefits from va-va-voom.

Endorphins released during sex can counter depression and anxiety that increase the risk of heart disease. For men in particular, lack of a partner can also be a risk factor. All of this adds up to evidence that sex is great for overall health, including cardiovascular health.

But, what if you already have heart disease – or have had a heart attack? As Dr. Glassberg explains, what ifs keep many cardiac patients from hopping back into the sack even after they’ve been cleared for activity, which can actually make heart health worse. “Part of my job is to ease patients back into the things they love, in moderation, because their effect on your wellbeing actually help your overall health – whether it’s a beer or a glass of wine in the evening, a game of catch, or sex.

Matters of the Heart 

Unless you also have an unstable condition like an arrhythmia, angina, or heart failure, your risk of a heart incident during sex is about the same as someone without heart disease: less than one percent.

sex and heart healthEven if you’ve had a heart event in the past, once your heart is stable, you can compare the risks of sex to the risks of any regular physical activity,” Dr. Glassberg explains.

Previous heart event or not, we all run a slight risk of a cardiac event occurring during sex because of the acute stress it inflicts on the heart.

But if you’re stable today, your risk generally has returned to what it was before.

And some more good news for what happens between the sheets:  there’s evidence that the more sex you have after recovering from a heart event, the less likely you are to experience an event in the act.

As with any physical activity, if you repeatedly have sex over time, it lessens the chances of an unexpected amount of stress on your heart the next time you do it.

If you fall in a high-risk category because of unstable angina, uncontrolled blood pressure, or advanced heart failure, hold off on sex until you’ve consulted with your doctor, or until you’ve undergone successful treatment.  In these cases, doctors might warn against certain durations or positions or even, on occasion, sex altogether. 

What about heart procedures?

“If you’ve had a stent or a bypass surgery, your heart’s endurance remains unchanged, but you want to be sensitive to mechanical limitations,” Dr. Glassberg explains.

Stents and catheters inserted through the groin should be given at least a week to heal. Bypasses come with longer waiting periods because in many cases the sternum is cracked open, which generally takes six weeks to heal. Whichever procedure you’ve undergone, refrain from sex until you’ve had a chance to talk to your doctor at your follow-up appointment. 

What about impotence medication? 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns against the use of erectile medications like Viagra (generic name: sildenafil) while taking nitrates, including nitroglycerin for angina. These drugs and nitrates both relax the muscles that control the size of blood vessels, and together can be troublesome for the heart. While this can be a challenge for couples, Dr. Glassberg encourages them to take heart.

So many patients are hesitant to talk to their doctor about sex, or to have frank talk with partners about sex. Don’t be. Opening the door to conversation is yet another step toward better heart health, better sex, and more medical and sexual options.”  

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.

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