Rebecca Warren, a registered nutritional therapist explains how hormones impact our sex drive and share recommendations on nutrients and natural aphrodisiacs.
For centuries, alchemists have searched for the ultimate sexual elixir, but the search has become more desperate and, for some, a necessity. It is not, however, a simple matter of taking a magic potion. There are subtle things going on in our lifestyles and environment that are undermining our desire to have sex with a partner.
Of course, past experiences, lack of communication, insecurity and other emotional triggers can interfere with the ability to want sex and get aroused. But those aside, after the initial flush of excitement with a new partner or in this situation where the initial intensity of being together 24/7 re-sparked your passion, you now find yourselves exhausted, agitated and barely saying good night to each other, let alone making time to have sex; or do you have children at home who aren’t sleeping well, are struggling with anxiety and you find yourselves snapping at each other through frustration in trying to be ‘good’ parents.
What about those created obstacles to having sex such as the legendary headache or tiredness – you may be wise to take some steps to keep up your drive.
'The Feminisation of Nature'
Aside from fancying someone, sex drive is largely dictated by hormones. Over the last 50 years, there’s been an undeniable escalation in hormone-related problems such as infertility, breast and prostate cancers and an array of hormonal imbalances, particularly in people with vulvas.
In her ground-breaking book The Feminisation of Nature, Deborah Cadbury demonstrates how a growing number of commonly-occurring chemicals found in the air, water and food are disrupting hormone balances and altering the course of nature. Many leading scientists have come to the same conclusion.
“We have unwittingly entered the ultimate Faustian bargain… In return for all the benefits of our modern society, and all the amazing products of modern life, we have more testicular cancer and more breast cancer. We may also affect the ability of the species to reproduce,” says Devra Lee Davis, former deputy health policy adviser to the US Government. Although we’re not actually talking about cancers and genital defects here, similar processes of hormone imbalance are behind a drop in sex drive.
The chemicals referred to are oestrogen-like compounds found in pesticides, plastics, household cleaning products, industrial pollutants and pharmaceutical drugs. These hormone disruptors, also called xeno-oestrogens, mimic the role played by oestrogen in the body, messing up the normal hormone production, leading to a decrease in testosterone levels, and contributing to decrease sex drive.
People with vulvas produce testosterone too, in smaller amounts in the adrenals and ovaries. Studies have shown that giving people with vulvas testosterone implants raise their sex drive – with significant improvements in sexual desire, fantasy and response and a decrease in painful sex due to lack of excitement and lubrication. So, testosterone is handy for us!
Stress – the libido killer
Xeno-oestrogens are not the only factor in decreasing testosterone and sex drive. Rather than looking at adding testosterone (which may be more useful in people with vulvas who have had hysterectomies or after menopause), it’s useful to look at why testosterone levels – in any body – may be down. Stress appears to be a major contributing factor to the widespread decline in libido.
If your stress reserves are low, not only is a tough day at the office or a family crisis going to take its toll, but also a hard night partying or a strenuous session at the gym. Although the body needs its stress response to deal with everyday life, if stress is prolonged or extreme, the response can have negative effects on many aspects of health including hormone balance. Testosterone is a steroid hormone, derived from cholesterol.
Another important steroid hormone is cortisol, which is secreted as part of the body’s response to stress. Both testosterone and cortisol are derived from progesterone. So if from cholesterol your body makes progesterone and this can then go on to make either testosterone or cortisol, then you can see why, at times of stress, the progesterone is used to produce cortisol, leaving a testosterone deficit.
Although in more serious cases, testosterone medication (on prescription only) may help, it is not getting to the root cause of the deficiency. So rather than just adding testosterone, or even taking so-called aphrodisiacs, it makes sense to help control the body’s stress response. This must primarily take the form of reducing the stress in your life and your attitude towards life’s events, but can also be given a hand by modifying your diet and taking certain supplements. Avoiding stimulants such as coffee, tea, alcohol, cigarettes and sugary foods and drinks can go a long way to stabilising your body’s response to stress by helping to balance your blood sugar levels. (Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol also impede blood flow, which interferes with proper function of sex organs during sex.)
It’s helpful to eat regularly, have some protein at each meal and eat fresh, unprocessed, fibre-rich foods.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) from fish, nut and seed oils are also important for hormone production and effective hormonal messaging. Include oily fish, nuts and seeds (eg pumpkin, sunflower, almonds and Brazils) in your diet at least three times a week. Excessive stress can also interfere with the thyroid – a symptom of low thyroid function (hypothyroidism) is a low libido. If you also have weight gain or difficulty losing weight, dry skin, water retention and depression, it may be worth getting your doctor to run a test to see whether hypothyroidism is behind your low sex drive.
Nutrients for combating stress
The body’s main stress response comes from the adrenal glands, which rely on a good supply of several nutrients to work efficiently.
An important one is vitamin C (take 1g a day), others are B5 (best taken as part of a high-strength multivitamin/ mineral supplement or complex) as well as the minerals magnesium and chromium (which is particularly important for helping to balance blood sugar levels, take 200mcg daily).
B5 helps to convert choline into the important neuro-transmitter acetylcholine which plays a role in sex drive and vaginal lubrication. There are several herbs which can also help redress any imbalances in the adrenal glands. Rhodiola contains active ingredients which act as ‘adaptogens’ in the body which means that they improve the way the body deals with stress – mental, physical and environmental. One study of 128 people showed 64 per cent of participants had an improvement or complete disappearance of symptoms such as fatigue, loss of strength, irritability, headache and decreased work capacity – which is bound to reduce the effect that all of these have on your libido. Take three 250mg capsules daily (standardised to contain 1% salidrozids).
There are several nutrients and herbs that you could try to help give your libido a direct boost. These include vitamins, zinc and antioxidants.Oysters are the richest known food source of zinc, so no wonder they have a reputation for being a powerful aphrodisiac.
Antioxidants include nutrients such as vitamins A, C, E, the minerals zinc and selenium and plant nutrients such as bioflavonoids, which protect the body’s cells from damage by oxidants.
For people with vulvas, a widely used Chinese herb, Dong quai, tones the female reproductive organs and may therefore help increase the desire for sex. The dose of powdered herb is between 2-4g per day.
Seven supplements for better sex
How they work: Needed for testosterone production, adrenal support, energy production and healthy nerves. B1 is needed for healthy thyroid function. B3 is a vasodilator, enhancing blood flow to sex organs and essential for pituitary function which controls hormone balance.
Cautions: None in sensible doses. Excess B3 and B6 can have adverse effects (above 1,000mg a day). B3 as niacin acts as a vasodilator, improving circulation and causing blushing at doses above 50mg.
How much? Niacinamide (B3) 50mg, Niacin (B3) 50mg, Pyridoxine (B6) 50mg, Cyanocobalamine (B12) 50mcg, Folic acid 500mcg a day.
How it works: Widely regarded as a ‘sexual rejuvenator’ animal studies have shown ginseng to increase testosterone levels, help the body adapt to stress and boost energy.
Cautions: None at recommended doses. Make sure you get a brand whose dose is standardised to contain particular amounts of active ingredients.
How much? Panax ginseng 200mg (standardised to 10% ginsenosides) x3 daily, Siberian ginseng 200mg (standardised to 1% eleutherosides) x3 daily.
3. Muira pauma
How it works: A native to the Brazilian Amazon, its mechanism of action remains unknown, but it appears to boost libido and enhance sexual experience in both sexes.Traditionally used to alleviate menstrual cramps and discomforts of menopause,it also tonifies the female sex organs.
Cautions: None known at time of publishing.
How much? 1g a day.
How they work: Minimise oxidant damage to sex organs and optimise blood flow to sex organs.
Cautions: None at recommended dosage.
How much? Take a good antioxidant formula that contains the vitamins A, C and E plus zinc, selenium and perhaps lipoic acid and CoQ10.
How it works: This central American shrub is said to stimulate production of testosterone and increase the sensitivity of both the clitoris.
Cautions: No toxicity known.
How much? 400–800mg x 3 daily.
How it works: Needed for the enzyme to convert testosterone to its active form, dihydroxytestosterone. Needed to help sustain lubrication of vaginal wall, as well as for pituitary function.
Cautions: Smoking, alcohol, coffee and some drugs deplete zinc. Only toxic at excessive levels ie above 150mg per day.
How much? 15mg daily (best as part of a multivitamin/mineral).
7.Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
How it works: A native to Peru's central highlands, where it has been used in traditional Andean culture to awaken healthy passion. Experiments on mice showed increased sexual performance and improved erectile function even in testes-removed rats!
Cautions: None known.
How much? 3-5g of ground maca.