"Hope Springs," the cringingly funny mid-life comedy about a marriage that has lost its sexual spark, seems to have struck a chord with audiences in its opening weekend. It's a departure for the movie industry, which usually creates the impression that everyone is having mind-blowing sex with gorgeous partners, but it more closely tracks what's really happening behind many couples' closed doors.
Even though we live in one of the most sexualized cultures ever, Americans are having less sex than they were in the 1950's. In fact, according to the American Medical Association (AMA), 40 million adults in relationships are not having sex at all, and a third of all women report a lack of interest in sex. No wonder people have resonated with Meryl Streep's and Tommy Lee Jones' characters as they try to restore intimacy in what has become a sexless marriage.
As a practitioner of Chinese medicine specializing in reproduction and sexual health, I've talked with thousands of people over the years about their sex lives. So I've heard over and over again about how much sex people are not having, how they just don't feel much like it, how they are too tired or too stressed to even think about it. But I also hear, with equal fervor from women like Kay, Meryl Streep's character in "Hope Springs," how much they want to want sex. So I'm always happy to be able to tell them there are simple solutions available, and that the ancient Taoist founders of Chinese medicine wrote it all down thousands of years ago. Their wisdom offers modern couples key insights about how to want -- and have -- great sex.
That's what my upcoming book "Sex Again: Recharging Your Libido" is all about, but in a nutshell: the Taoists understood that good sex is important to a person's health and happiness; that good sex is important to the health of a relationship; and that good sex always involves the mutual flow of energy between partners, with both people giving and receiving it. And that all those things are themselves intimately entwined. If sex isn't creating energetic connection, and powering both you and the relationship, then over time it is likely to drop off. As in, over a cliff.
But having sex again -- good sex -- can have you back scaling the heights. My single best piece of advice to anyone who wants to want to have sex, but hasn't really been feeling it, is to go ahead and do it anyway. Pretend you are in a sneaker commercial and just do it. I don't mean to sound glib, and I know it seems easier said than done. But there's real Chinese medicine behind the advice -- and a proven track record amongst my patients that it works. The Chinese medicine philosophy is that having sex creates connection, moves stagnant energy and restores balance -- both within you, and between partners. Balance, connection, and flowing energy are what you need to feel your sexual desire. In other words, having sex makes you want more sex.
Assuming it's good sex. And the Taoists have that covered, too. They offer plenty of meditations, positions and techniques designed to ensure the sex is good. As "Hope Springs" proclaims, "Sometimes to keep the magic, you need to learn a few tricks." The following is just one example. It's an exercise designed by the Taoists specifically to move stagnant sexual energy in the body, circulate sexual energy from the pelvis through the rest of the body, and find a place of balance from which to make a sexual connection with someone else. I call my simplified version The Loop. It combines breathing with visualization into a meditative practice.
Practicing The Loop will help you tap into your own sexual energy if you've been out of touch with it, and help you cultivate more of it. And it will enhance sexual pleasure. It is also, speaking very practically, a great way to get started, especially if, like the couple in "Hope Springs," your drought has been long.
Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Imagine a shallow bowl nestled inside your pelvis -- a bowl filled with warm oil. Now imagine a tube or straw running along your spine. Inhale, and as you do, imagine the warm oil coursing up through the tube, as if led by your breath, moving from your pelvic area up to the very top of your head. Hold your breath in for a count of three (or five, as you get more experienced). Then exhale, imagining the warm oil flowing down, along a line in the center of the front of your body, from your head through your mouth, across your chest, down through your abdomen, and back into the bowl in your pelvis. Hold your breath out as the bowl finishes filling, then after three to five seconds begin again with an inhale. The idea is to create a continuous loop -- and run through it about six times.With practice you can learn to do this loop with your partner, synchronizing your breathing so one person breathes in as the other breathes out. Expert loopers learn to do this exercise whilst they are having sex, timing the breathing and energetic exchange with the rhythm of intercourse. My patients who have learned The Loop almost always love it. They happily report that their experience with The Loop helps them to feel more balanced and connected and, not coincidentally, more like having sex. Or could the renewed sexual desire come from the way The Loop leads to more intense orgasms?
Oysters have a well-established history as an aphrodisiac (just look at that suggestive shape!): Romans believed in their libido-increasing abilities and Casanova wrote that he ate 50 for breakfast in "The Story of My Life." Well guess what? The mollusks are packed with the feel-good hormone dopamine. Zinc -- a mineral linked to stimulating testosterone, a hormone key to sexual arousal, can also be found in oysters, according to WebMD. A past study also suggested a link between raw oyster consumption and sex-hormone production, after researchers discovered that they contain rare amino acids previously found to stimulate testosterone and progesterone production in rats, The Telegraph reports.
The "shaky bridge experiment" is probably familiar to anyone who took Psych 101 in college. In the study, men were asked to walk across a tall, shaky bridge, and then asked by an attractive researcher to fill out a survey. They were more likely than those who walked across a less scary bridge to give the researcher a call later on, mistaking the physiological arousal from their fear response to the shaky bridge (increased heart rate, feeling a bit warm, breaking a sweat) for sexual attraction and arousal. In the absence of terrifying suspension bridges, you might try chomping down on a hot chile for the same physiological arousal. And just like hot peppers, spices like curry and cumin can also increase blood flow and in turn, your libido, according to Live Strong.
Another provocatively shaped food, garlic is associated with increased blood circulation, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. "Better blood flow to the genitals creates greater arousal for men and women," Men's Health reports. Garlic is also a traditional aphrodisiac in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. It is one of the five pungent roots monks were told to avoid because of its effect on sexual desire (according to the Surangama sutra: "if eaten cooked, they are aphrodisiac...").
As Shakespeare wrote in "The Tragedy of Macbeth": "Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance..." In moderation, however, alcohol can lower inhibitions without the unfortunate side effect of decreased performance. A 2009 study conducted by the University of Florence also found that women who drank one to two glasses of red wine a day reported "higher...sexual desire, lubrication and overall sexual functioning."
Sex isn't all about the physical act; there's a good deal of mental stimulation necessary before one is in "the mood." Taking a bite or two of chocolate can help. The cocoa-packed treat contains a compound called phenylethylamine, which floods the body with serotonin and endorphins creating that loving feeling, according to Fitbie. While a study found that a boost in sexual desire after eating chocolate was all in participants' heads, we'll take it where we can get it!