Around 2008/2009, people started surfacing on the Internet who were freaked out that they had erectile dysfunction during sex, but at the same time could get a solid erection to varying degrees of extreme porn with the help of some good old death-grip masturbation. The weird thing was that thousands of people sometimes responded to these forum posts, saying they had the same exact symptoms. Stopping masturbation to Internet porn helped reverse their porn-induced ED.
Besides normal libido, they reported other positive changes: Depression and social anxiety going away, increased confidence, improved concentration, the feeling of fulfillment and being on top of the world.
I'm one of those guys. The amazing part is that a year before I tried giving up porn, I even went to see psychiatrists and psychologists who diagnosed me with severe social anxiety disorder and depression, and wanted to put me on antidepressants, which I never agreed to.
When I went on my first no-porn/masturbation streak (~80 days) I started noticing the benefits reported by others. Today, on my 109th day of a streak, I feel happy, confident, social, smart, capable of meeting any challenge, etc., etc.
For guys like him, giving up porn has had remarkable benefits. Such guys often wonder if it's all placebo effect, or if physiological changes might be behind the improvements. They also wonder why some users have different experiences. In this post, we'll look at research that may help to explain why improvements vary and for whom.
Dopamine: a common thread
Although symptoms such as erectile dysfunction, social anxiety, lack of motivation, concentration problems and depression are quite different, they share a common finding in the scientific literature. All have been associated with altered dopamine signaling in the brain's reward circuitry. Dopamine is the "go get it" neurochemical essential for libido, risk-taking, motivation, focus, and anticipation and cheerfulness.
In other words, a decline in dopamine signaling is associated with all of these:
Or to state it all more positively: When dopamine and related neurochemicals are properly regulated, sexual attraction, socializing, concentration and feelings of wellbeing are more effortless. We suspect that a return to normal dopamine signaling helps explain why many guys report the same improvements as they unhook from excessive consumption of Internet porn. The reports are often striking.
Why do some guys see rapid improvements, while others need months to feel "normal" again?
The answer is probably that some users are just recovering from a bit of excessive ejaculation (via frequent masturbation, which appears to be harder on humans than frequent intercourse). In contrast, others need to reverse the more lasting brain-changes associated with addiction. Let's examine these possibilities in more detail.
Excessive ejaculation - Animal models reveal that there is such a thing as too much ejaculation. When the number of ejaculations reaches a set threshold, the brain's delicate reward circuitry applies the brakes. Scientists note three obvious effects: sexual inhibition, loss of the anti-anxiety benefits of sex, and "drug hypersensitivity," which is also observed after repeated doses of drugs of abuse. The researchers surmise that this "hangover" of neuroplastic changes may be a protective measure against overstimulation of the brain's reward circuitry:
It could be thought that the long lasting sexual inhibition resulting from copulation to satiation constitutes a protective mechanism against over stimulation of the brain circuits involved in its processing.
The changes observed suggest that too much ejaculation temporarily modifies dopamine signaling in the brain. Scientists report that most of the changes in the affected animals reverse themselves within 4 days. To restore their mojo fully the animals need up to 15 days.
Were guys who recover quickly from porn use previously overriding their normal sexual satiation mechanisms and unwittingly causing a decline in dopamine signaling?
Of course, dopamine is not the only neurochemical affected by ejaculation. Scientists have already measured other changes in the brains of sexually exhausted rats as well: reduced androgen receptors, higher estrogen receptors and increases in opioids. All have the potential to dampen libido because they also inhibit dopamine.
Of these, the most interesting is the reduction in androgen (testosterone) receptors. With the first ejaculation, androgen receptors begin a progressive decline, which encompasses additional brain regions as male rats sexually exhaust themselves. With fewer androgen receptors, males are less responsive to the effects of testosterone—even if they are churning out plenty of it.
Bottom line: Some guys who give up frequent masturbation to Internet porn probably experience increased motivation, social confidence, improved concentration and normal libido simply because the neurochemical changes discussed in this section are reversing themselves fairly quickly.
This guy, for example, was only at day 24 of no porn/masturbation when he wrote:
2) I don't stumble like a blubbering moron like I did: 'Uhh, uhhhmmm.... mmmm.. well...ah ...so what's...uh..your name....(pulls out phone and stares at a black screen, avoiding eye contact).' Now I look hot girls right in the eyes and give them a confident, outgoing and seduction-like smile.
3) Girls are noticing me. A LOT MORE! The hot, fit girls at the gym who I thought were way out of my league are now giving me smiles, stares, and flirt with me.
4) Before, I would never have ever guessed that they were flirting. Now I notice the blushing, twisting of hair, seductive pose, the eye-f-ing, all of it!!
5) Social anxiety is pretty much gone. I walk into a room like a f-ing boss with a smile on my face, and project confidence like crazy. No longer afraid of group work at university, not afraid of job interviews. MY ACNE IS GONE! I could not believe it!
6) I hear this too much, "Oh god, it's like you're a different person. I never thought you were so good at ___ etc, etc, etc."
Addiction-related changes - In contrast with the ejaculation-related changes just discussed, addiction-related changes are more extensive and longer lasting. Worse yet, a nasty withdrawal often lies between quitting any addiction and returning to balance. For a look at these changes in more detail see Porn, Pseudoscience and ΔFosB and Recent Internet Addiction Studies Include Porn.
So where does dopamine fit in? As explained in Recent Internet Addiction Studies Include Porn, a standard change in addicts' brains is desensitization. This term refers to a general dialing down of the addict's responsiveness to all pleasure...a baseline drop in dopamine and fewer dopamine (D2) receptors. It leaves the addict less sensitive to everyday pleasures, and "hungry" for dopamine-raising activities/substances of all kinds.
In the case of porn addiction low dopamine and dopamine receptors could potentially account for lots of symptoms heavy users report. For example, low dopamine D2 receptors play a role in conditioned fear and anxiety, social anxiety, ADHD, and motivation.
In fact, when a medical student courageously allowed doctors to deplete his dopamine briefly, look what happened:
During increasing dopamine depletion in this case, a range of subjective experiences appeared and disappeared consecutively. These experiences resembled negative symptoms [loss of motivation, dulled senses, decreased fluency, lower mood, fatigue, brain fog, restlessness, feelings of shame, fear], obsessive-compulsive symptoms, thought disorders, and anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Addiction researchers have measured a decline in dopamine and dopamine D2 receptors in the brains of addicts of all kinds, including Internet addicts. This decline in D2 receptors can happen very quickly with "natural rewards," such as junk food, and may precede other addiction-related changes. Users who are lucky enough to recover their mojo quickly may do so because they restore their D2 receptor levels before addiction sets in.
In most people, the brain naturally heals this desensitization—if the user can quit long enough to give it a chance. This is precisely what thousands of former porn users are doing with the support of their peers or therapists.
Incidentally, porn use has to alter more than just the fundamental addiction pathways (in some brains). It's striking how frequently porn addicts report chronic sexual dysfunction, which reverses itself as they recover. This doesn't happen with other addictions. These broader effects may help explain loss of mojo. Could porn addiction, because it hijacks sexuality, have the power to interfere with the brain circuits that govern normal male mating/courting behavior?
As with the guys described earlier who bounce back quickly, former addicts who return to normal dopamine signaling naturally experience increased motivation, social confidence, improved concentration and normal libido. Getting there just takes a lot more determination and time. Many of their stories can be found among the accounts at the bottom of this page. Here are two short reports:
I feel like an animal now - ha! I lost my fire in life because of porn but now it's back and it's INCREDIBLE! I ended up with a girl on day 104 and ED wasn't an issue at all. I just did my job like all the men on the earth who have lived before me!
And here's a guy reporting at 230 days:
I'd been watching porn for so long that it had completely taken over my sexuality. Without it I was essentially asexual. ... I wanted to build up a new sense of sexuality, one centered around real women and completely detached from porn. It worked! My attraction to real women has magnified to levels it never had reached before.
To sum up this section:
1) Excess ejaculation can lead to significant brain changes that may possibly take as long as 15 days to fully reverse. This could help explain short-term benefits.
2) Recovery from porn addiction-related brain changes (i.e., increased D2 receptors and dopamine as well as a higher functioning frontal cortex) could help explain both short and long-term benefits.
Sadly, there are also a few guys who don't see the improvements they hope to when they give up porn—even after months of being fairly consistent. It's likely they're struggling with pre-existing conditions that had little to do with their porn habits. Interestingly, some conditions may be congenital or related to earlier trauma, and yet also be related to dopamine and dopamine signaling.
Primate studies show that dominant primates have higher D2 levels than submissive primates and that these levels are fluid. Addictions, for example, lower primates to submissive D2 levels. Consider the following:
Dominant primates have higher dopamine (D2) receptors than submissive primates, but not until hierarchy is established. That is, one cannot predict in advance which primates will become dominant based on D2 receptor levels. This permits new males to rise to the occasion when a troop leader disappears. A newbie's receptor levels rise when he assumes the throne. D2 receptor density is not innate, but rather responsive to circumstances.
When hierarchy is established, it's not the submissive monkeys that have lower D2s, but the dominant primates that see a jump in dopamine receptors. In effect, they grow more sensitive to dopamine and are thus rewarded for being the dominant male. In humans, too, researchers observed that,
increased social status and increased social support correlated with the density of dopamine D2/D3 receptors.
Could it be that, as ex-porn users tear themselves away from their screens and socialize, their actions help support and increase their D2 receptor count and give them a welcome dopamine buzz? Or does the willingness to take social risk just naturally increase as dopamine receptors rise?
And what about those pesky "beta" feelings? Given that addictions cause a decline in dopamine D2 receptors, might porn addiction be keeping some heavy users feeling less "manly" than normal? In monkeys, long-term cocaine use brought all test subjects to similar D2 levels and wiped out status differences. Indeed, D2 receptors after cocaine administration do not correlate with levels of D2 receptors prior to cocaine administration. That is, overconsumption crashed all the monkeys equally—even the dominant ones.
D2 receptors are protective against addiction. Dominant male monkeys in a social group have higher D2s and are less likely to imbibe cocaine. The protective effects of higher D2s have been duplicated in human studies. Can we rule out the possibility that heavy porn use at a young age leads to a cycle of lower D2s, followed by increased use and further D2 declines?
Not all monkeys recover from the effects of addiction in the same timeframe. After 3 months, 60 percent of the addicted monkeys had recovered their normal D2 levels. However, 40 percent had not. This may help explain the variable rate of recovery and reported benefits
At any event, mojo appears to be somewhat dependent upon normal dopamine signaling.
What about testosterone?
Most guys logically assume that blood testosterone levels must somehow be involved with the benefits they experience. It is not. Blood testosterone levels are not significantly affected by ejaculation or abstinence. In fact, except for a one day spike, abstinence has no effect on blood testosterone levels. We think the most important clues lie in the brain.
Sexual desire, erections and many of the mojo-feelings associated with testosterone are actually dopamine-dependent. Testosterone is relevant, because it binds to strategically located androgen receptors in the brain, which in turn raise dopamine or indirectly activate dopamine receptors. But if androgen or dopamine receptors have declined...mojo can be low. As explained earlier, in male rats, androgen receptors decline temporarily with each ejaculation, and take days to recover. Something similar may well be happening in humans.
In other words, it may be that testosterone's effects will be muted until receptors return to baseline. The links in the chain of mojo begin with androgen receptors and end with dopamine receptors. Of course, it’s also possible that unidentified circulating hormones are also altered by excessive masturbation or porn addiction. Certainly, the brain's dopamine system is intertwined with structures (hypothalamus, amygdala) that control the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems.
In short, the picture is complex, but if dopamine receptors and dopamine are low (addiction), or if brain androgen receptors have declined (ejaculation), all the testosterone in the world may not get you going.
What about the placebo effect?
The placebo effect doesn't explain the kinds of benefits recovering porn users see, because most benefits take a while to kick in, and even longer to stabilize (especially in addicts). The receptor-level hypothesis, however, aligns neatly with both anecdotal evidence and existing research on ejaculation and addiction. Whatever the precise mechanics, the effects are real, and that's good news for those recovering:
I have experienced some awesome benefits. First off, I finally have energy again! I haven't felt this good since high school. It's not like I'm Hulk or anything, but I finally have extra energy to DO stuff. I spent most of my early 20's in a state of low energy and mild depression. Now that I've stopped [masturbating to porn] twice a day, I've been exercising, being more social, and generally enjoying life.
Secondly, I'm really digging on all the women. There are women everywhere! Many are gorgeous. When I was [masturbating to porn] constantly, I'd criticize women in my head. Like, how they weren't attractive. Now my body just tells me who I find attractive, and some of it surprises me! Again, I'm not magically a massive player. But the part of me that is good with women is easier to access. And I have a LOT more courage. I think it comes down to fear vs desire—which is stronger? The fear hasn't changed much yet. But the desire is finally tipping the balance... towards taking action. And that's an awesome feeling.
Thirdly, and most importantly, I finally have gotten my life together. My job is challenging and rewarding, and I am able to meet my challenges. Fueled by my energy, things just seem much more... possible. I'm thinking bigger and bigger!
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