A Healthy Lifestyle Supports A Healthy Love Life
Unfortunately, modern life isn’t very friendly to the human libido. Contemporary challenges to a healthy sex drive are many: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid dysfunction, adrenal exhaustion, poor nutrition, prescription medications, hormonal birth control, too much stress, and too little sleep.
I’m sure you’re getting the picture. It’s a somewhat cruel irony, too. On the one hand, we’re increasingly living with these impediments, but on the other hand we’re bombarded with the marketing messages and cultural fallout of the Viagra age: we should all be happy, randy people up for an erotic rendezvous at all and any given moment. It’s simply a matter of will – and a pill if you need it.
Let’s get to the fundamentals. What makes for a healthy sex drive? What are the real biological facts when it comes to the human libido? What health related choices can cultivate sexual verve and vitality over a lifetime?
Sex drive, as it were, involves a constellation of complex hormonal and psychological factors that are influenced by everything from health to lifestyle, personality to relationship status, gender to genetics. It’s personal, emotional, nuanced, but there are some things we know. Sex hormones, not surprisingly, play the central role in libido as well as fertility. For women, estrogen and testosterone both appear to positively impact sex drive. In clinical research studies, women responded more to sexual stimuli and reported more subsequent interest in sexual activity when they first viewed said stimuli during times of peak endogenous estrogen levels.
In men, testosterone likewise holds a positive sway over sexual drive. Men with clinically defined low libido are often diagnosed with low testosterone, and men more than women respond better and more safely to testosterone supplementation. Metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity also can contribute to low testosterone by impairing production of testosterone. Estrogen also figures into the hormonal equation for men although in a more inverse relationship - if estrogen levels creep up too high in relation to testosterone, you might as well call it a night.
Likewise, prolactin tends to decrease libido in both sexes. Prolactin levels rise throughout pregnancy and remain elevated during breastfeeding. In both sexes, low thyroid function causes the pituitary gland to increase the release of both thyroid-stimulating hormone and prolactin. Anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications are known to increase prolactin release as well. The steroid hormone DHEA also figures into the libido picture for both men and women. DHEA is converted by the body into sex hormones, particularly testosterone and estrogen. Some research points to the importance of DHEA more than testosterone in pre-menopausal women’s experience of low libido.
Aphrodisiacs, those edibles credited with mysterious, erotic powers, do contain certain nutrients key to the production of sex hormones. Zinc, for example, appears to play a role in testosterone production. Oysters are – guess what – chock full of zinc. Nevertheless, a single serving an hour before the big event isn’t going to make any discernible difference. A diet with consistently ample zinc and other minerals, however, may make a significant impact.
Other foods contain nutrients and compounds that promote various elements of successful sexual functioning – like good circulation, hormonal balance, nerve ending sensitivity, and even emotional well-being. Fish and nuts offer a healthy dose of fatty acids, which foster hormonal balance and help thin the blood. Much has been made of chocolate’s phenyl ethylamine compound that triggers the brain’s release of dopamine. Likewise, hot peppers’ capsaicin burns so good because it prompts the body to release natural endorphin pain killers. The list goes on. Amino acids like L-arginine, found in shellfish and figs, figure into the production of sex hormones. You may want to consider choline and vitamin B5 supplements. The neurotransmitter that triggers the sexual message, in both men and women, is acetylcholine (ACH). With too little ACH, sexual activity goes down. One way to safely and effectively enhance ACH levels in your body is to take choline supplements (1,000-3,000 mg) and vitamin B5 (500-1,500 mg).
Despite all the focus on these few nutrient “stars,” your best bet is – you guessed it – a nutrient dense diet high in antioxidants and minerals, generous in both essential fatty acids and healthy, clean saturated fat. The fact is, fats are critical for regulating the body’s production of sex hormones. It’s why fertility is enhanced by full-fat dairy, for example. Your sexual fires may also be fanned simply by eating less sugar. High levels of sugar in your bloodstream can actually turn off the gene that controls your sex hormones.
Exercise is about the smartest thing you can do for your libido, there’s the boost to physical self-confidence and an impressive increase in overall energy and stamina. But, wait there’s more! There’s the pleasurable surge in endorphins, which research suggests leaves us happily in the mood. Then there’s the increased blood flow and the hormonal effects. How about lower stress hormones and a healthy boost in testosterone? Good, hearty resistance training is the ticket here. Studies have shown that men who engaged in regular physical activity lowered their risk of experiencing sexual dysfunction. Consider setting a goal of 60 to 90 minutes per day, every day. You may need to check with your doctor and work slowly up to this level.
There’s the flipside of too much exercise – and the resulting physical exhaustion and hormonal alterations that can accompany it. Women who regularly work out to the point of exhaustion frequently experience adrenal fatigue and even infertility as a result of drastic hormonal changes. In men, the effects of exhaustion exercise can include “reduced resting levels of testosterone, altered pituitary release of luteinizing hormone and prolactin, and altered sperm characteristics.” It goes to show that you can have too much of a good thing – at least when it comes to working out.
There’s the short-term distraction of stress – the incessant bad mood, the nagging thoughts and reminders during what should be intimate, focused moments. Then there’s the longer term physical toll. Stress sets in motion a whole cascade of negative hormonal challenges, an unwarranted rise in adrenal corticosteroids can be enough to diminish sex drive. Over time, chronic stress can leave us with little physical energy and even adrenal exhaustion. The losers here are the sex hormones. Researchers at Berkeley University have found that long-term stress and the corresponding surge of glucocorticoids suppresses not only the production of key reproductive hormones like GnRH but increases GnIH, which acts to further squash the production of GnRH and the resulting sex hormone products, testosterone and estradiol. In other words, stress effectively throws a major wrench in the whole reproductive system. Anxiety, defensiveness, fear, and failure of communication are destructive psychological forces that can take a heavy toll on your libido, whether you’re a man or a woman, by acting as roadblocks to desire, according to Professor Gert Holstege with the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) can really help. EFT is a psychological acupressure technique that can help you effectively address your stress-related thoughts and leave you feeling calmer and more able to face your challenges, whatever they may be.
Hormonal contraception alters the biochemical landscape to fool the body into thinking it’s pregnant, but it can also put a damper on libido. Because the Pill generally prevents ovulation, women on the Pill generally forgo the hormonal experience surrounding ovulation – an experience which usually includes a midcycle surge in sex drive. The surge can be subtle or dramatic depending on the individual woman, but the evolutionary sense is obvious: a female should want to have sex when she’s most fertile.
Other medications that can put the kibosh on your sex drive include most anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds, high blood pressure medication, anti-psychotic prescriptions, and some stomach acid and ulcer meds. I’m not saying people shouldn’t take their prescribed medication or use a high efficacy form of contraception in order to enhance their sex drive. Knowledge is power. If you think your medication might be lowering your libido, you have the choice to talk to your doctor about alternative versions of your medications – or if healthy lifestyle changes can make enough impact on your condition that a dose reduction might be possible.
Finally, let’s talk age. What people in our culture too often assume is a dramatic, age-induced downward spiral is instead usually a health or medication related issue, a relationship strain, a crisis of self-confidence, or just an excuse to give up. As we all know, a lot more goes into a healthy, satisfying sex life than hormones. Although our hormones will gradually, naturally shift with age, our sexual drive is like every other aspect of our physical selves: its function depends largely on our own efforts – and attitudes – throughout life. Research has demonstrated, for instance, that social and psychological factors are more influential in sexual satisfaction/dissatisfaction after menopause than biological causes. With changing social attitudes toward sex throughout one’s lifetime, surveyed men and women are reporting more frequent sex and more satisfaction with their sexual lives.
If you or your significant other has an ongoing, unexplained, precipitous decline in drive, I’d suggest two things. First, do an emotional and physical inventory. Are you over or under-exercising, eating poorly or not getting enough sleep? Are you under more stress or going through your own kind of personal funk? Has your confidence been waning for some reason? Or does your relationship need some work, some space, or a romantic reboot?
If everything here seems in order, check in with your doctor and be vigilant about your interests. Ask for tests rather than a prescription. For men, this can entail testosterone, DHEA, other androgens, thyroid function (full panel), glucose/A1C1, and blood pressure. For women, all the above would be relevant as well as estrogen, progesterone, and adrenal function. (The adrenal tests might be appropriate for men as well, but problems are more common in women.) Work with your doctor and ask plenty of questions with the interpretation of the results, and don’t ever, ever hesitate to get a second (or third) opinion.
U.S. News & World Report November 6, 2008.