I once vowed to myself that I wouldn’t ejaculate for 60 days, but that’s not what happened. Somewhere around day 37, I had such a powerful nocturnal emission that it woke me up, and I suddenly remembered how magical ejaculating felt. The next day, it was all over: I masturbated three times and then was back to shooting my load daily.
I had tried semen retention—the practice of not ejaculating for days, if not weeks at a time—after stumbling upon a Reddit thread that claimed it was a panacea. There were multiple reports of men stating it helped alleviate their anxiety, depression, poor memory, general fatigue, and other ailments. Not much has changed since then: Men are still out there swearing that semen retention has changed their lives in nearly inconceivable ways.
One Reddit user recently wrote, “It seems all organs begin to fail when you excessively ejaculate. It’s scary to witness.” Having not ejaculated for three years, this user claims that all of his symptoms, which included gastrointestinal issues, bloating, light sensitivity, inability to be productive, intense fatigue, lack of ambition, depression, anger outbursts, and about a dozen more, are now gone.
In my thirty-some-odd days of ignoring the one-eyed snake, however, I can only say that there was one thing semen retention kind of helped with: fatigue. That was to be somewhat expected. Ejaculation releases prolactin, a hormone that makes you sleepy, so I expected to have more energy. And I suppose I did, but not enough that it warranted continuing my masturbatory abstinence. As for my anxiety, mood, or anything else? Nothing happened, except that I was horny all the time and would get random erections as if I was in middle school again.
It begs the question: Where did men get the idea that semen retention could be good for them? At least part of the answer may be rooted in 17th century Chinese erotica, which posited that semen was connected to your life source. For instance, in The Carnal Prayer Mat, one of the great classics, one of the characters actually dies from ejaculating. (Not such a bad way to go, honestly.)
But what does actual research say about semen retention?
Well, a big problem is there isn’t much of it. Most of the studies exploring semen retention focus on pregnancy. There’s some research indicating that not masturbating helps with sperm motility (which means the ability for those little suckers to swim on their own), but that’s it.
“This is why patients are told not to masturbate in the four or five days leading to sperm collection for IUI (Intrauterine Insemination) and IVF (In-Vitro Fertilization) procedures,” says Christopher Carrubba, MD, a Jacksonville, Florida-based physician and medical education consultant. “If you’re trying to conceive, there could definitely be a benefit to semen retention leading to intercourse.”
But there’s even evidence against that. When I spoke to Sandip Prasad, MD, a urologic oncologist at Garden State Urology, he shared a study of 800 men in an IVF clinic, which found that ejaculatory abstinence (a.k.a. semen retention) of greater than four days has a detrimental effect if trying to get pregnant. In fact, one day of ejaculatory abstinence tended to have the best pregnancy outcomes, and then it just went down from there.
When I asked Carrubba about all the other purported benefits, since I, for one, am not trying to have a child, he replied, “To date, there has been no research that I could find documenting any psychological benefit to semen retention. As such, any reported benefits are purely anecdotal and could also be the result of a placebo effect.”
Nevertheless, no research in favor also doesn’t mean any research against. However, there’s something called the publication bias or “file drawer effect.” Since only studies with significant results are published—and the rest are put in the “file drawer”—there could, in theory, have been studies showing that semen retention doesn’t do anything mentally. They simply wouldn’t have been published.
Carubba did mention a study that reported testosterone peaks around six to seven days after abstinence. “If semen retention increases testosterone levels then there is a chance that it could improve energy levels and mood.” However, he also notes that the studies showing an increase in testosterone “have all been very small in terms of overall study subjects. As such, larger studies would be needed to really confirm the validity of this finding.”
Prasad said something similar, noting that there are “two commonly cited studies, both of which are small, with less than 50 patients, that suggest elevated T levels from 1-3 weeks after ejaculation.” (Note: Three weeks is also very different than three years.) “But I think the quality of the science [in these studies] is too poor to extrapolate.”
So what’s the takeaway from all this? In short, nobody can prove semen retention is good for you, but if you want to find out for yourself, the risks are minimal. “There are really no significant risks associated with semen retention,” Carrubba says. “As such, my stance would be that if you think there is a benefit, then have at it.”
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