Friday Weird Science: Feeling down? Have you tried…semen?

Sigh. These friday weird science titles just keep getting worse and worse! But there’s really no other way to put this paper. And it kind of carries on the depression theme I’ve had going for the past few weeks. Well, kind of.
ResearchBlogging.org Gallup et al. “Does semen have antidepressant properties?” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2002.
Now, I saw the title of this paper and went “you’re KIDDING. They want women to take…WHAT?!” I had this strange image of what the marketing department for “semen pills” would be like. But it turns out the title is slightly misleading. And as for the implications…we’ll get to them.


I’m actually not so pleased with this study. I think it’s got some major variables unaccounted for, but it is preliminary. One wonders whether they ever got around to the real study. And heck, the results are…rather weird. And it definitely used the phrase “semen withdrawal”. Because there are so many people out there addicted to semen. Gotta get their hit of all those little swimmers!
As I’m sure many of you are aware, women are diagnosed with clinical depression in higher levels than men. In fact, women are 3-5 times more likely to be diagnosed with depression than men. This may not necessarily be because men are just less depressed, they may simply report it less or not go to the doctor for it. Be that as it may, women are diagnosed with depression more often than men.
And of course we all know that hormones of various types can influence mood. Aside from the hormones that many women have naturally floating around, we can take in hormones from other sources, in pills, or even as herbal or dietary supplements. And, it turns out, women can get doses of hormones from semen. It should be obvious to most people that semen is FULL of hormones, and most of them are ones that the female system is going to recognize (same species and all that). There’s the basic stuff, like testosterone and estrogen, as well as prostaglandins and other hormones.
Finally, we all know that the vagina is…a wondrous thing. The inside of a vagina is not just made of skin, and the membrane is permeable to lots of things. Like hormones. Which you could get from things like a guy’s semen. And hormones, as we all know, have an effect on mood. So the authors of this study hypothesized that women who had sex without condoms, and thus had semen in their reproductive tract, would have differing moods from those who used condoms or were sexually inactive.
So they gave a very large group of college women a questionnaire, asking about frequency of sexual intercourse, whether they used condoms, how long it had been since they had last had sex, and of course, assessing mood via the Beck Depression Inventory. They found that women who did not use condoms during sex showed lower depression scores than women who used condoms or were not sexually active. They also found that the time since last episode of sexual intercourse correlated with mood in women who didn’t use condoms, so the longer it had been, the worse their mood (shocking, I know). Not only that, people who used condoms the most often were also the ones most likely to report having attempted suicide. Whether or not people were in relationships at the time had no effect. Interestingly, they also found that oral contraceptives did not have a significant effect on depressive symptoms. Finally, they found that women who did not use condoms had sex almost twice as often as those who did.
The authors acknowledge that there are lots of issues with the study. The women who didn’t use condoms could be less depressed just because they are having sex more often. They could also be more likely to engage in risky behavior, though this trait doesn’t appear to correlate with depression or lack thereof.
They concluded that, because women who didn’t use condoms were less depressed, that hormones in semen absorbed through the vaginal tract might antagonize depressive symptoms. This could mean that women who might otherwise be depressed could be “treating” it with condomless sex.
But if I were you, I wouldn’t throw out the condoms just yet.
Some problems I had with it:
1) You’re telling me that “possible semen in the reproductive tract” with hormones absorbing through the vaginal wall, has a significant effect on how depressed women are, but oral contraceptives, which are taken every day and contain enough hormone to suppress ovulation, have NO significant effects on mood? This issue alone actually made me doubt the study. But perhaps they were looking at the wrong questions.
2) Sexually active women who do not use condoms are assumed to have semen in their reproductive tract after sex. I would highly doubt this, due to the popularity of “pulling out” and other methods sometimes used instead of condoms. I don’t think a questionnaire could have adequately detected this.
3) They state that females who didn’t use condoms might be more likely to be in a committed relationship, but don’t provide any data. I find this odd, it seems the questionnaire would certainly have asked that question. A committed relationship certainly could make a difference in mood.
So basically, it’s a preliminary study. And even if it DID turn out that semen helped mood in women, the risk of STDs (or pregnancy) in women who are not necessarily in committed relationships is just too high to be tossing out your condoms on the chance semen might help. On the other hand, if this DOES turn out to be the case, it could possibly open up new routes for hormone administration intra-vaginally (like Nuva-ring, except maybe a cream or something), which might have effects on mood, while avoiding some of the global side effects resulting from high levels of circulating hormones. I still doubt it. Hormones absorbed through the vaginal wall would still get into the bloodstream, so you’d still get some effects.
In the meantime, there are less-risky ways to help your mood if you’re not in a committed relationship. If you ARE, and you’re in that stage where you may not be using condoms…well, guys, if she’s in a bad mood, you might have something that can help…
Gordon G. Gallup Jr., Rebecca L. Burch, Steven M. Platek (2002). Does semen have antidepressant properties? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31 (3), 289-293 DOI: 10.1023/A:1015257004839

43 Responses

  1. In not one but several jobs it’s been obvious when I’ve had sex the day before. I’m male btw.
    Has been described to me as I get all social the following day. Weird.

  2. interesting line of thought, i’m sure it’s plausible. but the flaws are many, and the way they went about it tells us little to nothing about the effect they’re interested in.
    mood is SO correlated to the length of time since you’ve gotten some action, i don’t care how it’s done. being in a long-distance marriage has taught me that!

  3. I can’t believe they didn’t control for relationship status. It seems obvious to me that those getting laid frequently w/o condoms are 1) on the Pill and 2) in exclusive (or believed to be exclusive) relationships. Doesn’t just about everything we know about frequency of intercourse indicate that more often correlates to in a serious relationship? Duh.
    Unless college-age women are incredibly stupider than my cohort was, back in the day, which was pre-AIDS, by the way. And I mean really, incredibly stupider. Even in the heady days of sexual freedom and no disease, we were smart enough to take the pill.

  4. And of course I agree with young Leigh. Getting laid = happiness. Semen’s fine, but it’s the sex that rocks your world. Again, duh.

  5. Makes you wonder about the gender of the researchers, their agenda and who funded the research (and why)and the verification process. “Sex is like air. Only important when you aint getting any”

  6. Being a pharmacologist, I’m looking for mechanism, assuming the conclusions are backed by solid statistics. As you are well-aware, depression is a disorder of pleiotropic causes, behavioral and neurochemical.
    My two cents: the difference in coital frequency is most likely to be the major reason for the observations as there are several good reports demonstrating that sex, particularly sex resulting in orgasm, reduces depressive symptoms.
    Here’s another hypothesis in the context of this report and I don’t think it’s as out there as it may seem: men who wear condoms may consciously or unconsciously transmit cues of resentment to their female partners, thereby setting up a stressful environment that may predispose one to the hallmarks of depression. More of a reach, yes, but just as possible as the title of a paper clearly intended to generate interest.

  7. Not only did they not control for relationship status in terms of length, they didn’t control for relationship fulfillment.
    Think about it this way. Let’s say you’re married or in a long term relationship and having sex (let’s hope). If you’re happier, more committed, etc, I would hypothesize you’d be more willing to have condom-free, birth-controlless sex (not to mention more often) and not be as worried/upset by the idea of having children, even compared to those in relationships who aren’t as happy/content/etc. I would think this, too, would skew the results.
    I can’t believe they just jump to saying “semen might improve mood” – I mean, at least they should have looked at whether swallowing affected depression symptoms… I’d have given them credit there.

  8. Ok, so is Old Leigh any relation to Leigh? That would be kind of awesome.
    And yeah, flaws are MANY.
    Leigh, Abel, and Christie: yes, I think that frequency of sexual intercourse might be the deciding factor, as well as what kind of relationship they’re in, and how happy they are in it. I’m actually very surprised that they DIDN’T report the relationship data, and perhaps there was no correlation or something and that’s why.
    It’s a big jump, but that’s what makes it so weird! And actually I think absorption of hormones through the vagina may be more effective than swallowing. Though I suppose we’d have to test it somehow. :)

  9. So I read the paper… They claimed relationship data but didn’t show it – very odd. For example, they said that “there were no significant differences in depression scores between those that were in relationships and those that were not” and that “the length of relationship was not correlated with individual differences in depressive symptoms”
    1) Why not show the data? and
    2) There’s a difference between “depression scores” and “depressive symptoms” – they talk about both separately in the first results paragraph. This makes me think there might have been a correlation between “scores” and length of relationship, esp. since they found correlations between ‘length of relationship and sexual frequency’ and the ‘length since sexual encounter and depression’ – and, for that matter, they didn’t say how they quantified length of relationship. Are they counting in months, days, years? I would think the numbers might be important (otherwise they’d show the data…)
    3) They also had a lot fewer people out of relationships (1/2 the # of ones in them) and I would bet that most of those used condoms usually or always. I don’t think the breakdown of groups was even – aka they didn’t have even numbers of people in relationships using condoms and not, people not in relationships using condoms and not, and all having equal amounts of sex. So I think that sample size between categories might be having a big effect on their data, too. Especially since they didn’t say whether relationship status had any effect on condom usage… which seems fishy to me. I would think since they’re talking about condoms being so important that they’d talk about motivations behind wearing them or not.
    4) They totally ignored mentioning that the people who “usually” use condoms were more depressed than those that “always” used condoms… and that the “always” score average was much closer to the “never” and “sometimes” than it was to the “usually”.
    Arg! I just hate it when interesting studies aren’t thorough… I mean, come on!

  10. I’m betting they didn’t include non-consensual sex?

  11. “Does semen have antidepressant properties?” Old stuff, a Finnish shaman Ior Bock tells:
    “One of the more surprising lessons to be learned from his stories is that the ancient culture had very different ideals from our modern ones, such as the common tradition of sperm-drinking. …”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ior_Bock
    Yup, been taking vitamin C, maybe i should take my daily dose of…

  12. All right, officially labeling this comment thread NSFW!!!!

  13. So I thought this could easily be replicated in animals with more control. In my mind, you’d perform tubal ligation on a dozen female rats, and vasectomies on six males. Maybe daily you’d pair up the females with a male for a few hours until they attempt intercourse. Then do FST, inescapable foot-shock, chronic mild stress, or some other such model of depression on the females. You could also have a comparisson group that has vasectomied males, but the females get an SSRI. This would set-up a No-sperm Vs Sperm Vs SSRI comparison.
    You could control more if you ovariectomized the females, and then gave them estrogen injections to simulate estrus… and maybe artificially inseminated them instead of leaving it up to nature.

  14. And actually I think absorption of hormones through the vagina may be more effective than swallowing. Though I suppose we’d have to test it somehow. :)
    Okay, you brought it up, Sci – not me. But while we’re on the topic: if there are antidepressant compounds in semen, vaginal absorption could result in higher systemic concentrations if the compound(s) were extensively inactivated by first-pass hepatic metabolism (resulting from the oral route). Moreover, the basic pH of semen would cause weakly basic compounds to be in their predominantly unionized form and better absorbed. I restrain myself from considerations of vaginal residence time of semen due to liquifaction of the original gelatinous deposits (I think because of the proteolytic action of PSA on semelogenins).
    For more related information, refer to my post on why witches are historically depicted as riding broomsticks – their hallucinogenic brews had better systemic bioavailability when applied to the vaginal, perianal, and rectal areas.

  15. Abel: NO WAY!!!! That’s awesome. And the compounds they’re talking about are your basic hormones like estrogen and testosterone, but also prostaglandins. I know that estrogen and testosterone are active orally, obviously, but what about prostaglandins?

  16. I actually agree with this article. They are just starting to try and prove what some women have known for a long time. Personally, there is nothing hotter – figuratively and literally. A hot load makes you high and makes you want another. No joke.

  17. Always loved that “kid friendly” version of “riding a broomstick” meaning flying rather than getting high off the smear of hallucinogens on the broomstick. Though I guess they’re still flying in a metaphorical sense.

  18. LtStorm: If you go to the link I put above, the type of hallucinations conferred by tropane alkaloids include flying – there you’ll find a really nice description of such a hallucinatory experience by Gustav Schenk.
    Just to correct my spelling above and provide a reference source, this 1985 JCI paper by Hans Lilja was the first to demonstrate that the serine protease we call “prostate-specific antigen” cleaves the major gelatinous protein of human semen, semenogellin. We all know of how PSA is used, somewhat imperfectly, as a plasma marker for prostate cancer – most folks think of it as simple biomarker but its proteolytic activity has a specific biological function. Hence, PSA is good in semen, not so good in the bloodstream.

  19. Yet another paper that we both happen to read. Are you talking me or something???? My take on it is here.

  20. Greg: I’m in your MIND. Inyourmind!!!!!!!!! Be afraid. Be very afraid. I like your writeup, thanks for addressing that. Had I actually read into the paper I might have gone back to that prostaglandin reference…
    And to everyone who’s mentioned it: sex is good for your mood. No arguing with that. But is SEMEN good for you mood, is what I’m asking. I think is there is any benefit, it’s masked by other, stronger factors.

  21. One does wonder about the validity of very very very subtle effects in very important areas of behavior. Most likely, the effects of experimental error on depression are much greater than the effects of vaginal wall absorption of male juices.
    But, if Gallup had something here, and it started a whole new way of thinking about things, it would have to be called ….
    … a seminal idea.

  22. Ok, please don’t make too much of this, I never used a actual broomstick – but I have made LSD suppositories. Short of taking a shot intramuscular, it was the most intense and rapid onset of a trip I ever experienced. Flying is no joke, that is pretty much exactly what it is. And I highly recommend against making up an actual traditional witches brew for suppository – or any other use. Not a happy place, not a happy place, not a happy place, not a happy place – nuff said!
    Unless college-age women are incredibly stupider than my cohort was, back in the day, which was pre-AIDS, by the way. And I mean really, incredibly stupider.
    Unfortunately, they bloody fuckingwell are. I cannot tell you how many women I did not have sex with, because they either refused to use a condom, or argued strenuously with me against it – the former weren’t going to happen and the latter made me too nervous about their general behavior. Condoms are not perfect protection.
    OTOH, I also know a lot of boys who were fuckwads about it too. Many would refuse to use them, yet still seemed to get some.
    So yes, there are a lot of women who do not use condoms, yet still engage in risky sexual behaviors. Way too fucking many, as far as I’m concerned.
    And I too am curious about the young leigh – old leigh dichotomy….

  23. And to everyone who’s mentioned it: sex is good for your mood. No arguing with that. But is SEMEN good for you mood, is what I’m asking. I think is there is any benefit, it’s masked by other, stronger factors.

    Give me a little bit to get home. I’ll let you know.

  24. PS, PP that is the creepiest video ever.

  25. http://www.researchblogging.org/ states:
    “Friday Weird Science: Feeling down? Have you tried…semen?”
    “by Evil Monkey (???) in Neurotopia”
    Interestingly the next post at researchblogging.org is:
    “What Do We Really Know About Anything?” which states:
    “Erroneous correlation can really skew our hypotheses”
    I certainly don’t know if the methods used were exhaustive in the “semen” study but I am skeptical or maybe just curious about the possibility of different (not studied) factors being involved. As I am a male I am positive that the gift of my semen is ALWAYS helpful to females. ;) However, could it be that perfectly normal and happy females get depressed from the effects of the semen? (From other males I mean, not from mine of course ;) ) Could it be that some of the depression and/or happiness is related to the fulfillment of socially expected norms. Say like christians might get from invoking religion. Or maybe there wasn’t the worry that the sexual experiences might be lacking because of the rain suit in the shower effect.
    OK, so I’m off to visit all the doctors in town and establish my semen as the brand of choice (patent pending).

  26. Funny how stalking – s = talking…..

  27. @ Sarah
    A/S/L please. LOL! No, seriously.

  28. What about evolutionary terms? Sex having positive effects, would seemingly be good for species survival, right?
    No sex = human species death, before condoms and the pill.
    So, scientists, people – what would be the actual, (if not feasible) way of scientifically studying this potential correlation / causation?

  29. As a tangent – http://www.bgci.org/education/harrypotter/
    Description of some background on what Harry Potter kids had.
    Running around with class A drugs by the sounds of it, with free reign to have lots of broomstick practise…

  30. 1) You’re telling me that “possible semen in the reproductive tract” with hormones absorbing through the vaginal wall, has a significant effect on how depressed women are, but oral contraceptives, which are taken every day and contain enough hormone to suppress ovulation, have NO significant effects on mood? This issue alone actually made me doubt the study. But perhaps they were looking at the wrong questions.
    I think this is a great point. I did a cursory lit search a few weeks ago and was shockkkkkkkked by how little literature there is about the pill and mood. But logistically, it would be tricky to measure–I’m not sure the BDI is a sufficient mood inventory, the pill comes in so many different forms, and if there is an effect of hormones on mood then there should be variation across the different menstrual cycle phases as well.
    Anyway, great article, and great analysis. Thanks for posting this.

  31. Can’t you just knock up… I mean whip up… er… make a vaginal suppository out of all these hormones and do a double blind?

  32. So can depressed men be cheered up by unprotected anal sex…?

  33. Obviously the whole relationship variable is a huge one that is unaccounted for.
    But here’s another one that’s much simpler – it seems very likely that people who are feeling less depressed will have more sex.
    There is really no way to examine this in humans within ethical constraints. Risk of pregnancy, STDs, etc. You could put them all on the pill, but that gives you another confounding variable. You could use couples who are trying to get pregnant, but THAT gives you another confounding variable.
    You could go turkey-baster style and inject women with infertile, STD-tested sperm, but if you don’t get the anticipated effect you don’t rule it out as a possibility either because maybe the infertile sperm just wouldn’t do the same thing. But at least with that method you could rule out orgasm effects and the experience of having sex in and of itself, plus birth control.
    But good luck getting some female participants to agree to having some stranger’s sperm shot up her no-no parts.

  34. Pardon me if someone has already pointed this out, but another variable I don’t see noted in the study is the effect of climax on mood, as opposed to that of merely engaging in intercourse. I’m betting that a woman who’s having frequent orgasms is going to report fewer symptoms of depression, and score better on the BDI, than one who is having the same number of sexual encounters, but is not reaching climax. The biochemicals released during female orgasm would probably have a substantially greater effect on a woman’s mood than that of vaginally-absorbed hormones from the sperm. Just sayin’.
    Perhaps a study could also be done of the mood effect of “blue balls” on the guys, and correlate that with male depression scores. ;-)

  35. http://xkcd.com/552/
    What about a double-blind study using STD-free sperm in suppository form?
    Yes, not exactly the same absorption, but similar (I’d imagine). And much, much better data.

  36. if we’re interested in the hormonal content of sperm, i would go about it by determining the average content in the average ejaculate and just formulate a vaginal dose of male hormones as a control for the effects of actually having sex. (but what’s the fun in THAT?)
    i just wrote up a little post on pharmacokinetics the other day, totally did not think of vaginal route of administration! i suppose it’s along the lines of percutaneous, but there’s far less between the site of absorption and the bloodstream. and of course no first-pass metabolism as AP mentioned.
    no relation between me and old leigh, but amusing nonetheless.

  37. The inside of a vagina is not just made of skin,
    *blink* It’s “not”?
    Ow. My eyes. Typo hurts!

  38. Thank goodness you suss out studies like this for us! What a great find – great analysis of the caveats, too. And I agree it’s freaking ridiculous how little research there is on the Pill, mood, and mental health – that’s one of the reasons I got off the Pill myself. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was doing to me.

  39. It’s true! Girls Jizz Wanna Have Fun. :-)
    Jessica, your comment reminded me of an old post about the pill written by a friend of mine:
    http://mysterybea.wordpress.com/2008/05/16/prisoner-of-the-pill/

  40. What’s all this I hear about sailors improving a woman’s mood? What about other servicemen? Shouldn’t they be studied, too?
    It must be tough on women in landlocked regions where seamen are hard to find. They should not be left without hope.

  41. I know that semen is an antidepressant! My wife and I have been married for 13 years, about 8 years ago we had sex every night in one week and my wifes mood was off the scale for that week. She was so happy it was great. The next cupple of weeks we didn’t and my wife was run down and back to being deprest. I started to pay attention to her mood and it wood change after we had sex. I start to figure out that her mood would be up for 3 days and down after that if we didn’t have sex. I tried to figure out with out her knowing what was causeing her mood changes. Was it sex? Was it a hand job, oral sex, anal sex or something else? Everything I tried failed. The only thing that would change her mood was her recieving my semen and it didn’t matter if she recieved it orally, anally, or vaginally. The resolts were the same. Once she recieved my semen in her body for the next 3 days her mood was up. She has been suffering from depretion on and off for a long time so it is very clear when she is happy and when she is not.

  42. If semen improves mood, they should be studying how to use it as a supplement for men and women (not just women.) Men have been in terribly bitchy moods and they get depressed, too. Maybe the answer to their own problems were in their testicles the whole time. (The answer is within you!) They should study semen (and is it ANY man’s semen or only select men? Some men’s semen will be premium and some inferior) and make it into a pill that males and females can take.

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