How’s your sex drive?
Testosterone plays an essential role in the sexual health of both men and women. Although lower than optimal testosterone levels are not the only factor connected to low sex drive, testosterone along with the balance of other hormones are very important in understanding individual concerns with libido. Where women have larger amounts of estrogens to keep a spring in their step, men rely more on testosterone to maintain their mojo. Although there are several supplements that may increase testosterone levels and improve sexual health in men, lifestyle still plays the largest role in maintaining a healthy sex drive and can help support testosterone production well into latter life.
Low testosterone (or low T) has been connected to many different physical and psychological health concerns in men. Notably, low T is more commonly found in men with depression, poor focus/concentration, decreased libido, erectile dysfunction and obesity. Didehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is another important steroid hormone related to sexual health. DHEA is predominantly a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, providing a readily available supply of pre-hormone that our bodies can convert into testosterone or estrogen. Because our adrenal glands respond to both physical and emotional stress, DHEA, along with testosterone and estrogen production can be dramatically affected by our stress levels, which can adversely impact our sexual health.
Cortisol, “the stress hormone”, also plays a major role in sexual health and feelings of well-being. Excessive stress can be huge when it comes to libido for men as male excitement relies on being relaxed and excited at the same time. Lifestyle factors that can help reduce subjective feelings of stress and anxiety have been shown to improve sexual function and libido. Think yoga or maybe pick yourself up a MUSE and work on your mindfulness to take control of your stress.
On a clinical level, it is very surprising how many men I have come across with lower than optimal levels of testosterone and/or didehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) directly correlated to their decreased libido. Coupled with low T and/or DHEA levels many men surprisingly have higher than optimal levels of serum estradiol, the main estrogen in our bodies. High levels of cortisol are also frequently seen in both men and women with decreased libido. These trends have all been found in many men, including men in adolescence, suffering from depression and other mental health concerns. When it comes to hormone health, it’s all about balance.
All of my clients are encouraged to have their serum DHEA-S, total testosterone and estradiol levels checked. For women this is a great way to check in on your adrenal function, since low T or DHEA would be a sign of physical or emotional burn out; low energy, poor focus, low sex drive, high anxiety, depression or even risks of autoimmune disease and osteoporosis. In men, low DHEA-S and estrogen are signs of adrenal exhaustion, where low testosterone and higher serum estrodial can result in depression, lack of sex drive and erectile dysfunction.
Although there is a natural decline in testosterone and libido, starting around the age of 30, one of the biggest factors that can prematurely reduce testosterone levels, in men, is excess body fat and increased insulin levels. Insulin is the hormone that regulates blood sugar and increased insulin is the cause of adult-onset diabetes, but high insulin levels can also increase body fat. Within fat cells there is a specific enzyme, called aromatase. The aromatase enzyme is what converts testosterone into estradiol, that can lead to suboptimal levels of testosterone. It is important to understand the connection between obesity and testosterone because there are several natural things that have been shown to block or reduce aromatase activity. Reducing aromatase activity can help naturally increase testosterone levels in men.
Healthy lifestyle practices play one of the largest roles in maintaining a healthy sex drive and hormone profile in aging men. Regular exercise, including weight training and interval training, can dramatically lower insulin levels and reduce body fat. This, in turn, reduces aromatase levels and leads to increased lean body mass (muscle) as testosterone levels start to rise. Exercise not only helps men feel better, but along with a healthy diet, can increase testosterone and DHEA levels, while reducing cortisol and insulin naturally.
Mindfulness practices, such as regular deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can all dramatically lower subjective feelings of stress. These practices can help reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels in the body which should be encouraged in everyone that is under excess emotional stress or suffering from chronic pain. People that practice regular meditation or yoga have been found to have a healthier sex drive.
Diet is very important in maintaining sexual health, with a particular focus on reducing caloric intake. Excess calories or overeating refined sugar and starch can increase insulin and cortisol levels. Over-consumption of starch and sugar can also lead to problems with controlling blood sugar which can increase feelings of anxiety. Along with excessive alcohol consumption, these types of calories can lead to obesity. In turn a healthy diet should focus on vegetables, low glycemic fruits, such as apples and berries, along with lean proteins and healthy fats. Consider following a Mediterranean style diet, while limiting calories, to help boost libido, testosterone and mood.
There are many specific nutrients and herbs that can promote sexual health in men and women. Low levels of zinc and magnesium are commonly found in people with low libido and sexual dysfunction. Zinc and magnesium can help to regulate testosterone metabolism. Mushrooms and green tea have been found to reduce aromatase activity, which can increase testosterone levels, while reducing estrogen. Maca root and panax ginseng are herbs that can increase feelings of sexual desire in men and some women with low libido.
Although the exact causes of decreased libido may be difficult to identify, hormone testing is a great place to start when evaluating sexual health. Along with balancing our hormones, a low calorie, highly nutrient dense, Mediterranean style diet can help to improve blood sugar control and weight. Exercise is a must, when working on increasing your libido, as it has been shown to increase testosterone and reduce body fat. Stress reduction strategies should also be a major focus in helping with erectile function and improving sexual performance. Although supplementation can be important, more times than not, lifestyle and dietary changes can have the largest impact on libido in men and women.
|Nutrient/Herb||Dosage||Expected benefit||Source and Caution|
|Zinc||30 to 100 mg||May increase testosterone||Nuts, Seeds and Meat/Shellfish|
|Magnesium||300 to 600 mg||Increases circulation and reduces anxiety||Nuts, Beans, Meat, Whole Grains|
|Maca||Depends on quality||May improves libido||Extract, Whole Root. Generally well tolerated|
|Panax Ginseng||Depends on quality||May improves libido||Extract, Whole Root. Generally well tolerated|