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August 12, 2022

Semen retention: what is it, and can it improve fertility?

Have you heard about “semen retention” — the practice of intentionally avoiding ejaculation? 

You may have seen rumors that it improves fertility, sexual pleasure, energy, and emotional health. But is this true? Where did this idea of semen retention come from?

It's actually a concept that's been around for a long time, but it doesn’t necessarily have a lot of science behind it. Let's learn a little more about semen retention.

What is "semen retention"?

Semen retention is not a new fad — it's an old practice. The concept originates from ancient spiritual practice, a Chinese philosophy known as Taoism. Taoism teaches that ejaculation depletes your energy and life force, whereas sexual self-control was a way of maintaining and increasing it. 

Essentially, semen retention is the practice of not ejaculating. This doesn't have to be through abstinence, although that is one method. It can be through learning to orgasm without ejaculation. (Yes, you can have an orgasm and not ejaculate.)

Over the years, modern myths have come to light, claiming that the health benefits of semen retention include:

  • Improved fertility
  • Higher testosterone
  • Better overall physical health

Despite these claims, there is really little substantial evidence to back them up. In fact, regularly ejaculating is beneficial for your fertility and overall health.

What happens to sperm and/or semen if you don’t ejaculate?

Sperm that’s not ejaculated simply sits in “storage” the epididymis, a structure in the testes, or in the ejaculatory duct. Eventually, it dies and is reabsorbed by the body. This doesn’t really have an effect — positive or negative — on your overall health.

What about “blue balls”? This a colloquial term for increased blood pressure in the testicles as a result of sexual arousal. When you’re turned on, there’s increased blood flow to your genitals, while at the same time, there’s reduced blood flow away from the genitals — this “trapped blood” is what causes an erection.

If there’s a prolonged period of increased blood pressure without ejaculation, you might experience aching or discomfort in the testes. However, this isn’t actually harmful.

Science behind the claims to semen retention benefits

As a spiritual practice, semen retention doesn’t need scientific backing. But is semen retention healthy? Are there medical benefits to not ejaculating? Let’s look at the semen retention science connecting abstinence to fertility, testosterone levels, and overall health.

Semen retention and fertility

Can semen retention improve fertility?

Scientifically, there seems to be a trade-off here. Abstaining from ejaculation for a couple of days may increase the volume of your semen and your total sperm count, but semen retention is also detrimental to your semen quality.

Research identifies that you can see an increase in semen volume after 1–2 days of abstinence, peaking after about a week. In some research, sperm concentration — number of sperm per mL of semen — doesn’t appear to be correlated with abstinence period, whereas in other research it increases with longer periods of semen retention. In both cases total sperm count is higher after longer periods of abstinence.

But, as the abstinence period increases, sperm quality and sperm genetic health deteriorate significantly. Peak sperm motility, or how well sperm are moving, is reached in just one day after last ejaculation. Abstaining for longer than five days, especially, may cause lower sperm motility.

Importantly, sperm’s genetic health decreases measurably after five days of semen retention. In one study, the percentage of sperm containing fragmented DNA was 9–10% in the first 2 days after the last ejaculation. By 11 days of ejaculation, subjects had more than twice as many sperm with DNA damage. Sperm mitochondrial damage also increases with longer periods of abstinence.

The bottom line: there’s no benefit of semen retention for male fertility.

If you’re trying to conceive, experts recommend having sex every other day during the female partner’s fertile period to optimize chances of pregnant. Studies show that sex every day during the fertile window gave a couple a 25% chance of conceiving, while sex every other day gave them a 22%.

Learn more about how often to have sex when you’re trying to conceive.

You might reduce sperm count per ejaculation if you ejaculate multiple times a day. So you might want to temporarily avoid masturbation — and focus more on having sex — if you're trying to conceive. And, there’s no reason to avoid masturbation before the fertile period. Regular ejaculation helps “clear out” the old sperm, which may be less fertile.

Learn more about masturbation and male fertility.

If you’re producing a semen sample for sperm analysis, sperm freezing, or IVF, we recommend abstaining from ejaculation for 2–5 days prior to get the best results.

Semen retention for low sperm count?

Even if you have a low sperm count, long-term semen retention isn’t the answer. Studies show that having sex once or even more per day can be beneficial when trying to conceive — despite a low sperm count.

A study of 576 men at an infertility clinic examined the semen analysis results of men ejaculating twice in a 1–4 hour period. Combining the two samples significantly increased the total sperm count and potentially the chance of conception. Other studies have had similar results for men with low sperm counts, finding that ejaculating twice in one hour can produce more motile sperm in the second ejaculation.

Semen retention and testosterone levels

Another common question is whether ejaculation, masturbation, or sex affects your testosterone levels. One small study found an increase in testosterone after a week of abstinence. A second study found that, while testosterone levels were higher following a 3-week period of abstinence, levels weren’t changed after the subjects masturbated to ejaculation.

Another study compared testosterone levels between men who participated in sex and men who just observed sex. For both groups, testosterone levels rose during arousal, but it increased significantly more (72% vs. 11%) for those who actually engaged in sexual activity. A third small study of 4 heterosexual couples found that testosterone levels were higher following sexual activity than on evenings where the couple didn’t have sex.

In general, masturbation, sex, or ejaculation doesn’t have a long-term impact on testosterone levels. Any correlation found between abstinence and testosterone levels is a short-term effect.

As you can see, research is limited and results are mixed. There’s no robust evidence to suggest that how often you ejaculate can affect your testosterone levels, or that semen retention is an effective response to low testosterone levels.

Benefits of regular ejaculation

There may not be any benefits to semen retention, but there are benefits to regular ejaculation. Here are five benefits of ejaculation, whether through masturbation or sex:

  1. Benefits for prostate health. Have you heard that 21 is the magic number? The European Urology Journal published the results from an 18-year study looking at the connection between ejaculation frequency and prostate cancer. Men were 20% less likely to develop prostate cancer if they ejaculated more than 20 times per month — 21 times was deemed the ideal amount.
  2. Stress reduction. Sex, masturbation, and ejaculation gives your feel-good hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine a boost. This helps improve mood and reduce stress and depression.
  3. Improved sleep. The Sleep Foundation advises that hormonal changes after sex or masturbation cause drowsiness and make sleep easier. Around 50% of people say that an orgasm from masturbation improves their sleep quality.
  4. Lowers the risk of heart disease. According to the American Journal of Cardiology, having sex once a month or less can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
  5.  It keeps your sexual organs healthy. Masturbation can reduce anxiety around sex and make you more body confident. It increases the blood flow to the genitals and keeps your sexual organs functioning properly. It also guides you to know your own body and what you like sexually.

So, are there health benefits to semen retention?

Some people have reported, anecdotally, that avoiding ejaculation benefits their mental health or clarity, makes them feel more spiritually connected, or improves their enjoyment of sex. All of these benefits are personal, and if semen retention has become an important part of your mental health practices, by all means — do what works best for you.

But is there good science to support the health benefits of semen retention?

Not really. Semen retention may be a personal or spiritual practice, but there are no real medical benefits to not ejaculating. A healthy relationship to masturbation, sex, and ejaculation is overall beneficial.

(The key word: a healthy relationship. If your desire to masturbate, watch porn, or have sex starts to feel compulsive or overwhelming, you might be experiencing an addiction — and you may want to seek out professional help.)

Bottom line? You do you — it’s good for you.

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