What does exercise have to do with sex and depression? What is sexual medicine? In this Q&A, Tierney Lorenz, post-doctoral fellow at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, talks about her fascination with mind-body interactions and why this health psychologist added sex research to her pursuits.
Health & Vitality: You used a term recently that I rarely hear – sexual medicine. What is it and what can a clinical psychologist, like yourself, contribute to it?
Tierney Lorenz: Sexual medicine is a growing field that encompasses research and clinical practice to promote sexual wellbeing. Scientists and practitioners in sexual medicine come from many disciplines, including gynecology, urology, psychiatry, psychology, social work, physical therapy, even biology and anthropology. The common thread is a focus on improving sexual pleasure and sexual function. I think the term came out of a desire to define research on aspects of sexual health rather than sexually transmitted infection and contraception. Several societies have developed recently to promote sexual wellbeing as an important issue in and of itself, including the International Society for Sexual Medicine and the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health.
Psychology has had a tremendous impact in research on sexual wellbeing, in helping to integrate the roles of emotion, thoughts, and behaviors on sexual function. Clinical health psychology in particular has an interest in how the mind and body interact to produce healthy (or unhealthy) individuals. Behavioral interventions to promote physical health are the bread and butter of health psychologists like myself – but only recently has health psychology turned its focus to sexual pleasure and functioning as a health issue.
Health & Vitality: What made you decide to pursue this as a career?
Tierney Lorenz: I’ve always been intrigued by the interactions between mind and body. And sex is a wonderful way to study those interactions, because sex is both a physical act and a very important mental process. Sexuality is also deeply personal and yet sex is a social activity — so it is a great way to study the interactions of self and others. To put it less academically — I get to think about sex all day and at the end of it, make someone else’s life better (and get paid for it, that’s nice too).
Health & Vitality: In December I posted an item to my Health & Vitality Tumblr blog about your University of Texas-Austin study that examined the impact of exercise on some sexual side effects of antidepressants. Your study found that moderately intense workouts can treat sexual dysfunction such as a weak libido or trouble organsming. For real? What do you want people to know about the findings?
Tierney Lorenz: Yes, for real.
Two things to know:
- Although the effects related to having sex immediately after exercising were pretty modest (e.g., women went from having orgasm problems most of the time to only some of the time), every woman benefitted from adding physical activity to her life. There were no side effects (other than having to carve out some time, which I’ll admit is hard, particularly for depressed women!). If a woman is having sexual problems while taking antidepressants, she has nothing to lose and a lot to gain by trying to add exercise to her week. Even short bursts of high-intensity body-weight exercises (like pushups) before hitting the bedroom would likely help.
- Many women fear starting antidepressants because they have heard that these medications are deadly for their sexual wellbeing. And it is very hard for people to bring up sexual side effects to their doctors because they think “it’s a small problem, relative to my depression; it’s just the price of feeling better.” This study, and others like it, are showing that there are ways to combat sexual side effects: but you need to work with your doctor to make a difference. And the average woman has an improvement, not decline, in her sexual pleasure when taking antidepressants, because depression kills your sex life too!
Health & Vitality: Your post-doctoral research examines how the presence or absence of sexual activity may influence immune response in healthy human females across the menstrual cycle, and if men and women differ in immune response to partnered sexual activity. What can you tell us about your current study?
The Women, Immunity and Sexual Health study is an exciting collaboration of researchers in sexual behavior and immunity. It’s been shown in studies over the last three decades that the immune system shifts across the menstrual cycle, with lower levels of inflammation (which calls immune responders to the site of invasion) and antibody production around the time of ovulation. It’s thought that this response reflects the need to reduce immune response to sperm and the fertilized egg (before it has a chance to implant and form a protective placental barrier) during the times when a female could conceive. If this were true, women who are not sexually active (and thus not going to conceive that month) may not show as big of a decline in inflammation during ovulation as women who were sexually active. The WISH study is examining if sexual behavior makes a difference in ovulation-related immune system shifts. The findings from this study may help explain some individual differences in women’s immune patterns — for example, why some women’s allergies appear to peak around menstruation while others remain stable.
Health & Vitality: If you weren’t in this field, what do you think you’d be doing?
Tierney Lorenz: I would likely be a psychiatrist — I always thought that I would be a physician, and love the study of the mind. But once I got to college and started working in psychology research labs, I was hooked. I love being a psychologist — it allows me to dabble in a lot of different areas so long as it all comes back to the mind-body relationship. Psychologists are the biggest “borrowers” of the scientific community — we are shameless when it comes to stealing theories and techniques from other disciplines! So I get to study what a psychiatrist studies — certainly much of my work on antidepressants would fit in the average psychiatry department — but I can also work in the world of anthropology, gender studies, sociology, biology and neuroscience, computer science — and so many others.
Lorenz’s fellowship is through the Common Themes in Reproductive Diversity program directed by Ellen Ketterson, Distinguished Professor of biology and gender studies.