Sex drive is a hot topic these days, and I can't help but notice blogs surface around Valentine's Day showing how certain foods, nutrients, and lifestyle factors can boost libido and keep you stimulated in bed.
Many of these articles neglect the underlying hormones that control sex drive. While losing your sex drive or struggling with issues like erectile dysfunction can become complex issues, hormonal imbalances play a significant role in these issues.
Many things promote these imbalances in hormones, including a high-sugar, refined carbohydrate diet, caffeine, stress, dairy (if you are sensitive to it), hormones in the food supply in dairy products and meat, and estrogen-like toxins from pesticides, plastics, and pollution.
Let's briefly look at some of these hormones that influence sex drive, what knocks them out of balance, and then how to balance them.
Among its numerous problems, high insulin levels can create sex hormone problems and can lead to: infertility; hair growth where you don't want it (your face if you're a woman); hair loss where you do want it (your head); acne in women; low testosterone, loss of chest, leg, and arm hair, and breast growth in men; and more.
Along with increasing belly fat, high insulin and insulin resistance can create fatigue after meals, sugar cravings, blood sugar swings or hypoglycemia, high triglycerides, low HDL, high blood pressure, problems with blood clotting, and increased inflammation often accompanied by low sex drive.
When insulin becomes out of whack, other hormones quickly follow, and your sex drive can take a massive crash. Let's look at a few of those hormones.
Testosterone is a wonderful brain-boosting hormone that improves mood, memory, motivation, overall cognitive function, and of course, sex drive.
Testosterone isn't just a guy's hormone. Imbalanced levels of this hormone in women can reduce desire, increase body fat, lower muscle mass, and create a fuzzy memory.
Insulin resistance can drive down testosterone levels, significantly impairing sex drive and sexual function. Low testosterone also can lead to other problems, such as decreased muscle mass and more fat deposition in the belly, seen in all those big guts in men over 40 years old.
Leptin puts the brakes on your appetite. This hormone tells your brain to stop eating. Except when you eat a lot of sugar, processed foods, and flour, leptin doesn't work anymore. Fat cells continue to produce this hormone, but your brain doesn't "hear" its call and eventually can become leptin resistant. I often see insulin resistance and leptin resistance go hand in hand with my patients.
Most people don't realize leptin also monitors sexual behavior. One study looked at three groups of men and found those with higher leptin levels -- most likely due to leptin resistance -- also had significantly higher body mass index (BMI) and lower levels of testosterone.
Growth hormone (GH) is your "fountain of youth" hormone that you mostly produce during deep sleep. Secreted by the pituitary gland, GH improves muscle mass, helps your body utilize fat, and helps maintain optimal libido.
Reduced muscle mass, increased abdominal obesity, and diabesity as well as lower libido are hallmark symptoms of GH deficiencies.
When you are introduced to a stressful situation, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for setting off all the physiological responses associated with stress.
Studies have shown that when cortisol is released into the bloodstream you become less sensitive to leptin, the hormone that tells your brain you are full. When this happens, you tend to eat more and crave more sugar. Prolonged, unremitting stress may lead to insulin resistance, diminished sex drive, and infertility.
You've likely experienced the effects of cortisol during a stressful situation. Sex is probably the last thing on your mind during those situations. Simply put, chronic stress crashes your sex hormones and quickly knocks you out of the mood.
4 Surprising Culprits that Kill Your Sex Drive
You know that cheap, high-calorie, nutrient-poor processed foods (or "food-like substances") are a sure-fire way to diminish your sex drive. Yet you might not suspect the following culprits could also contribute:
- Diet soda. Studies show drinking diet soda daily significantly increases your risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes, draining your sex drive in the bargain.
- A low-fat diet. One study with 30 healthy, middle-aged men found those who switched to a lower-fat diet had a significant decrease in serum total testosterone concentrations. Another study found lowering dietary fat in 39 middle-aged healthy men led to a 12 percent consistent lowering of circulating androgen levels.
- Conventional red meat. "There's something freaky that happens when you're female and you eat grain-fed, hormone-injected, superbug-infected meat," writes Sara Gottfried, M.D., in her upcoming book The Hormone Reset Diet. "It slows down your digestion and may make you bloated or constipated (or both!); it raises your body's estrogen levels; and it messes with your microbiome, the collective DNA of the microbes that live in your gut and elsewhere in your body."
- We often don't connect our ill health or symptoms like low sex drive directly with the effects of environmental toxins, yet their effects can become ravishing. For instance, lead exposure has been linked to depression, irritability, interpersonal conflict, fatigue, anger, tension, and decreased sex drive.
5 Ways to Optimize Sex Drive
The good news is when you control your blood sugar and normalize insulin levels, other hormones quickly follow that lead. Numerous factors can contribute to low sex drive and erectile dysfunction.
Blood work can reveal abnormal testosterone levels (in men) or estrogen dominance (in women) and other hormonal imbalances that can put you out of the mood. For most people, I've found these five strategies can help increase sex drive.
- Eat real food. Cutting out sugary, processed foods and eating whole, unprocessed, real foods is the best way to reduce inflammation and normalize hormone levels so you have optimal sex drive. If you don't eat high-quality food, you are going to become inflamed and fat with low sex drive.
- Exercise. The correct diet coupled with an intelligent workout plan can do wonders for your sex drive and mood. Studies show interval training can improve hormones such as testosterone, cortisol, and growth hormone. Check out this blog to learn more about interval training and other exercise that optimizes sex drive.
- Supplement wisely. A wide variety of nutrients can help improve sex drive. For everyone, I recommend at the very least: a multivitamin/mineral. Numerous nutrients, including magnesium, vitamin D, and zinc play a role to optimize testosterone and other hormones, as well as improve libido. To use just one example, studies show most people are deficient in vitamin D. "Vitamin D deficiency can cause low estrogen in women, which means low sex drive," writes Gottfried. "It also causes low testosterone in men."
- Watch your alcohol. "It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance," wrote William Shakespeare and indeed, alcohol becomes a double-edge sword. A glass of red wine can help you relax and put you in the mood, yet three glasses can crash the mood, leading to low sex drive, erectile dysfunction, and other problems in the bedroom. If you drink, have no more than three glasses of wine or alcohol a week.
- Control stress. Being constantly stressed becomes a sure way to put your sex drive to bed (pun fully intended). Whether that means deep breathing or a simple leisurely walk, find active relaxation that works for you and prioritize it.
Fish oil. Studies show among their many benefits, omega-3 fatty acids can reduce inflammation, as well as moderate mood and libido.
Numerous herbs can improve sex drive and performance. One study found supplementing with Tongkat Ali significantly reduced cortisol and increased testosterone levels.
What one strategy would you add here to keep you "in the mood"? Share yours below or on my Facebook fan page.
If you would like help with eating high-quality, whole-foods, that are delicious and so very good for you, click here for a sneak preview of my new cookbook, The 10-Day Detox Diet Cookbook.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, M.D.
Mark Hyman, M.D. believes that we all deserve a life of vitality -- and that we have the potential to create it for ourselves. That's why he is dedicated to tackling the root causes of chronic disease by harnessing the power of Functional Medicine to transform healthcare. He is a practicing family physician, an eight-time #1 New York Times bestselling author, and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in his field. He is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. He is also the founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a medical editor of The Huffington Post, and has been a regular medical contributor on many television shows including CBS This Morning, the Today Show, CNN, The View, the Katie Couric show and The Dr. Oz Show.