BDSM's Effect on Neurochemistry & Hormones

Related Information

The Science of Topspace/Subspace

Hormonal changes and couple bonding in consensual sadomasochistic activity

List of Neurotransmitters Released


  • Dopamine 
  • Adrenaline / Nor-adrenaline 
  • Testosterone (controversial, mixed results from various studies)
  • Flow (and associated changes in brain waves)
  • Oxytocin


  • Dopamine 
  • Endorphins 
  • Enkephalins
  • Dynorphins
  • Nor-adrenaline 
  • Opioid Peptides
  • Substance P
  • Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide (CGRP for short)
  • Down regulation of frontal cortex and the prefrontal cortex (See Transient Hypofrontality below)
  • Cortisol
  • Oxytocin

Effects of Neurotransmitters Involved


How might I feel if I have a high dopamine level?

If you have a high dopamine level, you might feel:

  • Euphoric.
  • Energized.
  • A high sex drive.

The negative side of having high levels of dopamine include:

  • Having trouble sleeping.
  • Having poor impulse control.
  • Being more aggressive.

What’s the role of dopamine in my body?

Dopamine plays a role in many body functions.

As a neurotransmitter, dopamine is involved in:

  • Movement.
  • Memory.
  • Pleasurable reward and motivation.
  • Behavior and cognition.
  • Attention.
  • Sleep and arousal.
  • Mood.
  • Learning.
  • Lactation.

As a hormone, dopamine is released into your bloodstream. It plays a small role in the “fight-or-flight” syndrome. The fight-or-flight response refers to your body’s response to a perceived or real stressful situation, such as needing to escape danger.

Dopamine also:

  • Causes blood vessels to relax (at low doses, it acts as a vasodilator) or constrict (at high doses, it acts as a vasoconstrictor).
  • Increases sodium (salt) and urine removal from your body.
  • Reduces insulin production in your pancreas.
  • Slows gastrointestinal (GI) (gut) content movement and protects your GI lining.
  • Reduces lymphocyte activity in your immune system.

Adrenaline / Nor-Adrenaline

What does norepinephrine do in the body?

As a neurotransmitter in your brain and spinal cord, norepinephrine:

  • Increases alertness, arousal and attention.
  • Constricts blood vessels, which helps maintain blood pressure in times of stress.
  • Affects your sleep-wake cycle, mood and memory.

What triggers norepinephrine release?

As a hormone, stress triggers the release of norepinephrine from your adrenal glands. This reaction causes a number of changes in your body and is known as the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response.

  • Eyes: Pupils dilate to let more light in to better see more of your surroundings.
  • Skin: Skin turns pale as blood vessels receive a signal to divert blood to areas more in need of your blood’s oxygen, such as your muscles, so you can fight or run away.
  • Heart: Heart pumps harder and faster to deliver more oxygenated blood to areas most in need, like your muscles. Blood pressure also increases.
  • Muscles: Muscles receive more blood flow and oxygen so they can react with greater strength and speed.
  • Liver: Stored glycogen in your liver is converted to glucose to provide more energy.
  • Airways: Breathing is deeper and faster. Your airways open up so more oxygen is delivered to your blood, which goes to your muscles.


While research is ongoing, there are many benefits of endorphins:

  • reduce pain and discomfort
  • increase pleasure
  • reduce stress, depression, and anxiety
  • attenuate inflammation
  • improve mood
  • boost self-esteem
  • may support a healthy immune system
  • may support memory and cognitive function


Endogenous opioids such as enkephalins are activated in response to stress, are implicated in pain control, and mediate systemic and organ-specific responses to injury and adaptation”

Endogenous analog to Morphine / Fentanyl / etc. Colloquially called ‘Endogenous opioids’. Effects of synthetic opioids:

  • Blurred vision
  • confusion
  • decrease in the frequency of urination
  • decrease in urine volume
  • difficulty in passing urine (dribbling)
  • dizziness, faintness, or lightheadedness when getting up suddenly from a lying or sitting position
  • drowsiness
  • fast, pounding, or irregular heartbeat or pulse
  • painful urination
  • pale skin
  • shortness of breath
  • sweating
  • unusual tiredness or weakness
  • Abdominal or stomach cramps or pain
  • bloating
  • constipation
  • convulsions
  • diarrhea
  • difficult or labored breathing
  • dry mouth
  • increased thirst
  • irregular, fast, slow, or shallow breathing
  • loss of appetite
  • mood changes
  • muscle pain or cramps
  • pale or blue lips, fingernails, or skin
  • restlessness
  • shakiness
  • sleepiness
  • slow to respond
  • slurred speech
  • tightness in the chest
  • unconsciousness
  • vomiting
  • wheezing
  • Bluish lips or skin
  • disorientation
  • hallucinations
  • lethargy
  • low blood pressure or pulse
  • severe drowsiness
  • slowing of the heartbeat
  • unresponsiveness
  • very slow breathing

Dynorphins (a type of endorphin)
  • analgesia/antinociception
  • psychomimesis
  • dysphoria/aversion, 
  • diuresis, 
  • antipruritic
  • blockade of psychostimulant effects

Opioid Peptides

“The effects of these peptides vary, but they all resemble those of opiates. Brain opioid peptide systems are known to play an important role in motivation, emotion, attachment behaviour, the response to stress and pain, and the control of food intake.”

CGRP (Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide)

  • neuromodulation
  • vasodilatation
  • cardiac contractility
  • bone growth
  • mammalian development


Cortisol affects your body in the following ways:

  • Regulating your body’s stress response: During times of stress, your body can release cortisol after releasing its “fight or flight” hormones, such as adrenaline, so you continue to stay on high alert. In addition, cortisol triggers the release of glucose (sugar) from your liver for fast energy during times of stress.
  • Regulating metabolism: Cortisol helps control how your body uses fats, proteins and carbohydrates for energy.
  • Suppressing inflammation: In short spurts, cortisol can boost your immunity by limiting inflammation. However, if you have consistently high levels of cortisol, your body can get used to having too much cortisol in your blood, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system.
  • Regulating blood pressure: The exact way in which cortisol regulates blood pressure in humans is unclear. However, elevated levels of cortisol can cause high blood pressure, and lower-than-normal levels of cortisol can cause low blood pressure.
  • Increasing and regulating blood sugar: Under normal circumstances, cortisol counterbalances the effect of insulin, a hormone your pancreas makes, to regulate your blood sugar. Cortisol raises blood sugar by releasing stored glucose, while insulin lowers blood sugar. Having chronically high cortisol levels can lead to persistent high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). This can cause Type 2 diabetes.
  • Helping control your sleep-wake cycle: Under regular circumstances, you have lower cortisol levels in the evening when you go to sleep and peak levels in the morning right before you wake up. This suggests that cortisol plays a significant role in the initiation of wakefulness and plays a part in your body’s circadian rhythm.


  • Oxytocin promotes attachment
  • Solidifies relationships
  • Eases stress
  • Crystallizes emotional memories
  • Boosts sexual arousal
  • Reduces drug cravings
    • “According to a 1999 article in the journal Progress in Brain Research, some studies indicate that oxytocin inhibits tolerance to addictive drugs, including opiates, cocaine and alcohol , and reduces withdrawal symptoms. "It's an antidote to craving," Ellison explained. "That craving (for drugs), that hunger, is probably eased with this hormone. It's involved with the satisfaction of hunger.””
  • Improves social skills
  • Triggers protective instincts
  • Induces Sleep
  • Fosters generosity

  • “Released into our brains under the right circumstances, oxytocin has the power to regulate our emotional responses and pro-social behaviors, including trust, empathy, gazing, positive memories, processing of bonding cues, and positive communication.3 Thanks to oxytocin, we get a toasty, tranquil feeling whenever we’re with the people we care about. And the more we engage in these feel-good behaviors, the more oxytocin we get—you might even call it addictive.

    Oxytocin is also connected to serotonin and dopamine. This trio of neurotransmitters is often referred to as the “happy hormones,” and for good reason. Under the right conditions, they work as a team to make us feel butterflies. Whenever we’re with someone who we’re attracted to or care about, our brain releases dopamine, serotonin levels increase, oxytocin is produced, and presto—you get the buzz that love songs are written about.”

  • “While the exact mechanism isn’t clear, sex has been found to stimulate the release of oxytocin, which appears to intensify erection, ejaculation, and orgasms. 9 Oxytocin also causes muscle contractions in the uterus and womb, which helps move sperm along and increases the chance of pregnancy.”


  • Men with very high testosterone levels may experience:
    • acne
    • aggressive or risk-taking behaviors
    • excessive body hair
    • headaches
    • heart or liver problems
    • high blood pressure (hypertension)
    • high sex drive (libido)
    • increased appetite
    • infertility
    • insomnia
    • low sperm count
    • mood swings
    • prostate enlargement, which may cause difficulty passing urine
    • swelling of the legs and feet
    • unexplained weight gain

  • High testosterone in females can cause:
    • acne
    • anxiety or depression
    • darkened, thickened skin
    • deepening of the voice
    • enlarged clitoris
    • excess facial and body hair
    • increased muscle mass
    • infertility
    • irregular periods
    • loss of libido
    • reduction in breast size
    • thinning hair
    • weight gain

Points of Interest

“Bottoms may experience a form of altered consciousness similar to that described by  by Di- etrich’s (2003) ideas abouttransient hypofrontality.”

Transient Hypofrontality

“It is the central hypothesis of this paper that the mental states commonly referred to as altered states of consciousness are principally due to transient prefrontal cortex deregulation. Supportive evidence from psychological and neuroscientific studies of dreaming, endurance running, meditation, daydreaming, hypnosis, and various drug-induced states is presented and integrated. It is proposed that transient hypofrontality is the unifying feature of all altered states and that the phenomenological uniqueness of each state is the result of the differential viability of various frontal circuits. Using an evolutionary approach, consciousness is conceptualized as hierarchically ordered cognitive function. Higher-order structures perform increasingly integrative functions and thus contribute more sophisticated content. Although this implies a holistic approach to consciousness, such a functional hierarchy localizes the most sophisticated layers of consciousness in the zenithal higher-order structure: the prefrontal cortex. The hallmark of altered states of consciousness is the subtle modification of behavioral and cognitive functions that are typically ascribed to the prefrontal cortex. The theoretical framework presented yields a number of testable hypotheses.”


TLDR: This theory suggests that the brain has a limited capacity for processing input, and in certain situations there may be a high demand for that limited processing power. In these situations the brain reduces processing power to the areas of the brain in less demand, specifically the prefrontal cortex. Pain and pleasure are highly salient, so they are theorized to cause this altered state of Transient Hypofrontality during a BDSM scene. 

Science of BDSM Research Team


** = Suggested reading***

The Neurobiology of BDSM Sexual Practice | Psychology Today

Ask a Neuroscientist: The Physiology of BDSM (Part 1/2) - How Pain Moves to the Brain**

Ask a Neuroscientist: Pain Physiology, Explained to a Bottom

Ambler, J. K., Lee, E. M., Klement, K., R., Loewald, T., Comber, E. M., Hanson, S. A., Cutler, B., Cutler, N. & Sagarin, B. J. (2017). Consensual BDSM facilitates role-specific altered states of consciousness: A preliminary study. **

Klement, K. R., Lee, E. M., Ambler, J. K., Hanson, S. A., Comber, E., Wietting, D., Wagner, M. F., Burns, V. R., Cutler, B., Cutler, N., Reid, E., & Sagarin, B. J. (2017). Extreme rituals in a BDSM context: The physiological and psychological effects of the “Dance of Souls”.

Sagarin, B. J., Cutler, B., Cutler, N., Lawler-Sagarin, K. A., & Matuszewich, L. (2009). Hormonal changes and couple bonding in consensual sadomasochistic activity.**