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By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/1/2010 8:20:41 AM ET 2010-04-01T12:20:41

Is giving up sex bad for your health? And why would her boyfriend's breathactually excite one woman? Sexploration answers your most intimate queries. Got a question? E-mail us . We'll post answers to selected questions.

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Q: Is there any evidence that the health of women who give up sex voluntarily deteriorates over time faster than those who continue to have a sex life? In this case, I talk a woman of 60 who gave up sex seven years ago for religious reasons and now faces a range of inexplicable digestive tract problems and lowered immune system functioning.

Having sex is good for you. We here at Sexploration have said so before and we will say so again partly because it’s true, but also because we are enormously pleased about it.

Yes, yes, yes, there are caveats. Sex is not so good for you if you have it with people incubating STDs, and it might not be so good for you if you like your sex spiced with a dash of asphyxiation or, say, fire , but you get the idea. Humans were meant to have sex.

But just because sex is good for you doesn't mean that abstaining from sex is bad for you.

With the exception of obvious conditions like vaginal atrophy that are directly related to sexual abstinence, no studies directly link celibacy to poor overall health. This could be because the validity of any such link is murky.

For example, some epidemiological studies have tried to make a connection between, say, prostate cancer and Catholic priests, testing the hypothesis that infrequent ejaculation might increase the rate of the cancer in the priests. (One study published nearly 30 years ago showed that priests actually had a lower rate of prostate cancer death.) But that assumes priests aren’t ejaculating. And maybe the rate of ejaculation had nothing to do with cancer incidence but lower stress levels or healthy diets did.

Other studies of monks, priests and nuns — who are supposed to be celibate — have generally showed that they live longer, on average, than us civilians. Is it the lack of sex? All that contemplation? Both? Neither?

After a group of Italian investigators followed nuns for more than 30 years and compared them to lay women, “none showed an increase in diastolic blood pressure … By contrast, the control women showed the expected increase in blood pressure with age … cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, expressed as the outcome of fatal and nonfatal events, were different in the two groups. They were significantly more common in the lay women than in the nuns.” But did sex have anything to do with that or did Italian husbands just aggravate their wives?

Utopian Shaker communities of the United States in the 19th century maintained strict celibacy. This may explain why, at last count, there were three Shakers left in the United States. But while celibacy didn’t do much for recruitment or restocking communities, it didn’t harm the Shakers’ health.

What evidence there is indicates that it is possible to live a long, healthy, celibate life. But we here at Sexploration think somebody ought to do a study on why anybody would want to.

Q: Okay, this may seem weird. When my ex and I got intimate he could turn me on by the breath from his nose. When we would get hot and heavy, the smell from his nose was so intoxicating. OMG! I’ve only had the courage to ask one other person about this (my sister) and she has the same experience with her husband. I’ve never told my ex this — too weird. Since we broke up, we hook up occasionally but it’s not the same as when I was in love. Mind over matter or is there something more to it?

It is your mind. Or, rather, your brain. Human beings have evolved, but the sensory inputs we had way back when we were crawling along the ground are still at work in our heads. One of those was our sense of smell. It could warn us of danger, help us find something to eat, and even pick a mate. When a smell led us to something that made us feel really, really, good, we learned to associate that smell with the good feeling — what neuroscientists call a “reward state.” Pretty soon, just the smell could make us anticipate the feeling we were about to get as our olfactory synapses sprang to attention in response to the aroma.

Good sex is about the most potent reward our brains get and smells can establish especially strong synaptic links associated with it. Scientists have tested just how strong using sex and lab rodents.

In a 2001 study, Canadian scientists made females smell like almonds, mated males to them, and those males started seeking out females that smelled like almonds. The researchers called this “conditioned ejaculatory preference.”

As you have discovered, the same phenomenon works in girls, too. Female lab animals that were given good sex with perfumed males, and crummy sex (what makes good sex and crummy sex for female lab rodents is a long story) with natural-smelling males. From then on, the females went for the perfumed boys.

How powerful is the attraction of sexual reward? Normally, a rat that smells a molecule called cadaverine, the smell of death, will try to bury whatever it is that is giving off the smell, including a fellow lab rat. Rats want nothing to do with cadaverine. But dab a little cadaverine onto a female rat, coax a male to have sex with her, and pretty soon, male rats will seek out females that smell like death.

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.

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