Sex, Fertility, and Longevity

Conservation of Essence

In recent years, it’s been nice to see the vast majority of traditional guidance on health and longevity being validated by modern research. Today, I am going to explore what modern science has to say about One of the less well studied of these traditional guidelines. All of the pre-modern cultures that I am aware of that wrote extensively on lifestyle and health seem to agree on a peculiar idea. This idea is that male ejaculation for any purpose other than procreation is a loss of valuable essence to the body and thereby shortens the lifespan. I’ve done a bit of digging around in existing basic and clinical research in this area, and there is no strong modern evidence to support this position. It is also largely been left unexplored by the optimal health and peak performance punditocracy, with one exception. Ben Greenfield, as is his wont, did a deep dive into the subject and seems to have come to the same conclusion that I have. 

Not everything that came down to us from ancient cultures is valid. To take such a position would be very dogmatic. No different categorically from believing the world is flat and other pre-modern misconceptions. Yesterday, I was listening to an audiobook on longevity, and the author spent a good deal of time detailing the current thinking of evolutionary biologists on why animals age. It was really quite fascinating, as well as being something that I was not previously aware of.

Fertility vs. Longevity

In a nutshell, if you look across species, there does not appear to be a particular reason why animals age. The author explains that the current thinking of evolutionary biologists is that lifespan is in part related to the size of the animal. So, in general, larger animals live longer, but this is a rule that has many variables. Many animals that are apparently similar in metabolism and general behavior age at greatly different rates. For example, a mouse lives about two years, while a naked mole rat lives about 30 or more (and remain fertile and in excellent health during that time).

What evolutionary biologists have determined is the key factor in why similar animals age at different rates is the ability of the organism to avoid predation, accident, and other non-natural ways of dying. In the example I just gave of mole rats versus mice, it is obvious that the moles are better able to avoid predation and live far longer than what would otherwise be expected for their size because they live underground. Humans also far exceed the lifespan that would be expected for their size, primarily because their intelligence and toolmaking also gave them a major advantage against predators. The author provides quite a few examples, and it is clear that this formula is the best one we currently have.

What is also interesting is that long-lived animals are generally less fertile than shorter lived animals. The current thinking in evolutionary biology is that there is an evolutionary trade-off metabolically speaking between reproduction and longevity. In other words, the body can devote its limited reservoir of energy to reproducing large amounts of offspring in a short period of time or it can devote that same reservoir of energy to continually repairing and rebuilding the body that they already have. It is actually more efficient to repair the existing body, so longevity is actually favored in many circumstances. The main circumstance in which longevity is not favored is when the animal would have likely died from an unnatural cause so early in their lives that there was no evolutionary advantage to allocating the energy reserves to repair and rebuilding and much more advantage to allocating them to fertility and reproduction.

Could this be the missing piece of the puzzle?

Conceptually, this sounds very similar to the TCM rationale we have all heard over the years. There’s a limited amount of essence, which can be used for reproduction or something else. I was pretty pleased with myself for about 30 seconds, until the author, clearly anticipating this line of thought, mentioned that this is an evolutionary pressure and not something that operates at the level of the individual organism. The author stated that the reason for this is because the problem is the extent of the exposure to sex hormones over the course of a lifetime, which apparently has detrimental effects. Merely altering sexual behavior does not change the exposure to the sex hormones.

So, altering sexual behavior during an individual life will not promote longevity.  He was very confident in his statement, but I was left wondering if perhaps his lack of knowledge of the traditional guidance on male sexual behavior from pre-modern cultures may have constrained his thinking.

He then surprised me by making a reference to the concept of minimizing male sexual behavior in traditional Greek medicine. As I noted above, this idea is common to at least the following systems of pre-modern medicine: traditional Chinese medicine, AyurVedic medicine from India, traditional Greek medicine, traditional Arabic medicine, and traditional Tibetan medicine. He then stated that this misunderstanding in traditional cultures was based on an erroneous conclusion that was drawn from a correct observation. I have not yet determined whether this is a standard line of thinking in cultural or medical anthropology or just the speculation of the author.

The Current Hypothesis

Men have always had a higher mortality rate than women and at just about every age. For younger men, testosterone-driven risky behavior as well as constant war in pre-modern times was a major factor. However, it was a little bit trickier to ascertain why men who had lives that were as “safe” as the women around them still tended to die earlier. Just as ejaculation was traditionally thought in many cultures to be a loss of vital essence, the same was true of menstrual blood. It is worth noting that both menstrual blood and semen do contain the female and male contributions to new life, respectively. So, this was not a totally loony idea.

In any event, according to this author, it was also observed that nature caused women to stop menstruating in their 50s but also allowed them to live another 30 to 50 years without being able to reproduce. Meanwhile, men who could not control their sexual behavior, continued to lose semen until the day they died. So, the conclusion was that because nature prevented women from losing any more vital essence after a certain point, they lived longer lives. Men weren’t as fortunate as women in this regard, because they had to use their will power to control their biological impulses to achieve the same end result. 


I haven’t had time to explore these ideas any further right now, so I’ll conclude with this thought. It was actually recognized by traditional wellness experts in China, India, and Greece that merely restraining oneself from excessive participation in sexual behavior could easily be far more damaging to health than continuing to have sex moderately because the urge would still be there, and if the energy was not dissipated, it would stagnate. This is essentially a pre-scientific recognition that the hormones are still circulating and that they are actually the source of the damage whether one has sex or not.

However, there was a corresponding aspect to this traditional health guidance. One was not supposed to just suppress sexual desire but rather sublimate it. Sublimation refers to transforming the energy that would’ve otherwise been used for sexual reproduction into energy that can be used for something else — repairing and rebuilding damaged tissue to extend life. This was actually an explicit goal of Taoist internal alchemy, Tantric sex, and medieval European internal alchemy. I plan to explore this idea in the context of modern research on the endocrine system and epigenetics in a future post.