Low libido? Try These Science-backed Ways to Boost Your Sex Drive
By: Courtney Sperlazza, MPH
February 13, 2018
- Libido is simply your sex drive — how often you think about sex and physical intimacy throughout the course of any given day.
- Since sex carries with it physical, emotional, and biological elements, there are a zillion things that affect your libido.
- What can you do to help increase a low sex drive? Finding out what sparks your interest in sex involves a little trial and error. Keep reading to find ways to boost your low libido.
Sex is an important part of being human, and everybody deserves a satisfying sex life. But, what happens when you lose interest in sex? In addition to losing a part of your life that you once enjoyed, your relationship could suffer.
Everyone experiences a rut in their sex life from time to time. Read on to find out what might be causing it and what to do to find your mojo again.
What is libido?
Libido is simply your sex drive — how often you think about sex and intimacy throughout the course of any given day.
Of course, your sex drive changes from day to day, even hour to hour. Fluctuations in libido largely depend on what you’re doing. Most likely, sex is far from your mind when you’re visiting your grandma or giving a big presentation at work, but if you’re relaxing on vacation with your honey, naked time pops into your head a lot more often.
So, when you’re considering how strong your sex drive is, it’s a general sense of how much you want to have a pants-off dance-off over a typical week or two — not necessarily how much you thought about it this morning.
What causes low sex drive?
Since sex carries with it physical, emotional, and biological elements, there are a zillion things that affect your sexual desire. Here are some of the more common reasons why you may have little to no interest in sex these days.
The testosterone, hormonal birth control and low sex drive connection
You probably think of testosterone as the male hormone, but that’s only part of the story. Women have testosterone, too, and while it’s not enough to sprout a mustache or pop an Adam’s apple, you need to have just enough to keep your mojo humming.
Birth control pills and other hormonal contraceptives contain a ton of synthetic estrogen. When your body realizes that all this estrogen-like stuff is pumping through your system, your liver responds by sending out a surge of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), a protein that snaps up excess sex hormones so that they don’t wreak havoc on your body.
SHBG doesn’t know that it’s responding specifically to estrogen. Once released, it indiscriminately snaps up all the estrogen, testosterone, and dihydrotestosterone it can hang onto. You’ll still have some hormones left, but your levels will fall considerably — except estrogen, because a daily hormonal contraceptive delivers a fresh surge of estrogen every day.
Your SHBG levels drop back down after you quit the pill or other hormonal contraceptive, but studies show that even just six months of use is enough to keep your levels elevated long after you’ve stopped. In fact, one study shows elevated levels over six months after stopping. If you have too much SHBG eating up that little bit of testosterone that you need to keep libido in normal range, you’ll end up minimally interested in sex.
The longer you’re off of hormonal birth control, the more likely your body is to approach normal hormone functioning. When you’re coming off of birth control, you’ll want to keep your liver happy by keeping your toxic load low, so it’s a good time to clean up your diet and your environment.
Other sources of libido-sapping hormones
You’re exposed to hormones from countless outside sources every single day. The hormones that farmers administer to animals make their way into your dairy, meat, and water supply, which trips SHBG production just like the pill does. You can also find endocrine disruptors and estrogen-mimicking chemicals in plastics, cleaning supplies and personal care products you use every day, which build up in your system over time and have a similar libido-dampening effect.
Sex drive during pregnancy, the post-partum months, and menopause
Women go through major hormonal shifts several times throughout life. One of the most noticeable and expected hormone changes happens during pregnancy, and everyone responds differently. For some women, sex is the furthest thing from their minds during pregnancy. Other women can’t get enough.
After the baby comes, the mother’s biology undergoes a number of changes that cause her to pour her energy and focus into her baby. Hormones change, and the brain measurably changes in structure. In addition to focus on the baby and a drop in sexy chemicals, the simple fact that babies eat every few hours for the first few months is just plain tiring. That said, a study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that psychological factors, not physical ones, predict whether women regain their sex drive after childbirth. The biggest motivator: feeling connected to your partner.
During menopause, follicle-stimulating hormone and luteinizing hormone no longer regulate your sex hormones. The natural drop in hormone production can decrease desire and sexual function (for example: vaginal dryness, etc.). Early on, you can solve bedroom snags with simple steps like introducing lubricant into foreplay. As menopause progresses, you might want to open up a conversation with your functional medicine doctor about natural ways to rev your engine.
Low sex drive and depression
The relationship between depression and sex drive is a total catch-22. On the one hand, people who suffer from depression experience sexual dysfunction more often than non-depressed individuals. Depressed patients who seek treatment will often be prescribed antidepressants. Antidepressant medications, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), negatively affect sexual function in both men and women.
What to do? Here’s an article on causes of depression and science-backed ways to feel better without medication. If you’re on medication and wish to stop, do it under the guidance of your prescribing doctor.
Sex can help with depression itself. “Sex is very good for you. It’s good for the lungs, it’s good for the skin, it’s good for the bladder, it’s good for the muscles. And it’s a very good antidepressant, actually. Any kind of stimulation of the genitals drives up the dopamine system in the brain and can give you feelings of optimism, energy, focus, and motivation,” says sex, love and marriage researcher Helen Fisher, PhD.
Stress affects sex drive
One of the strongest libido killers is stress.
Stress has a profound effect on whether or not you want to get it on. One study showed that the stress of unemployment was tied to sexual dysfunction. Another study pointed to anxiety, anger, depression and guilt as detrimental to sex drive.
From a survival perspective, it makes perfect sense. Your body’s stress response is the same if you’re being chased by a tiger or if you get verbally attacked by a customer. You’re not going to die from an argument, but your body springs into action like you’re fighting for your life.
If your stress response triggers over and over, your body shuts down your sexual desire until you’re feeling better. Reason being, sex leads to babies and babies born into a hostile environment have a lower chance of survival than do babies born into safety. Your body doesn’t always know when you’re safe and when you’re not — the increased heart rate, shallow breathing, the surge of adrenaline and cortisol — it’s the same either way.
Sleep and libido
Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality kills your sex drive in several ways. Your body makes a good portion of your sex hormones while you’re sleeping, so if you aren’t sleeping enough, you’re leaving unfinished processes hanging and you won’t have enough of the hormones you need.
More practically though, lack of sleep means, honey, you’re actually tired. You might actually have a headache. When you need sleep, your bed has one draw and one draw only.
If you need help in the sleep department, check out this article on how to hack your sleep.
Fix low sex drive with sex?
In some cases, you don’t desire sex because you’re not having enough of it.
At times, that means having sex when you don’t necessarily feel like it. In women especially, time to sexual arousal is a little slower, and women often need to be touched and stimulated before they feel any desire.
Now, that’s not the same thing as begrudgingly having sex when you genuinely don’t want to. If you’re tired, if you’re ill, if you’ve had a rough day and feel unable to shake it off, if you’re feeling disconnected from your partner, or if you’re otherwise distressed…that’s not the same thing as not wanting sex just because you’re not aroused.
Barring those things, if you’re awake, content, and simply not in the mood, consider just saying yes or even initiating sex to make arousal easier next time.
Dr. Fisher points to the biological system behind this idea. She says, “When you have sex, it does drive up the testosterone system and makes you want to have more sex. So the more sex you have, so the more eagerly you’ll want to have sex soon thereafter.”
Instead of writing it off right away, give your engines a chance to warm up, and then decide. You might surprise yourself. After a while, you might feel stronger desire and more effortless arousal.
Strengthen your emotional connection to boost sex drive
Sex is the bridge between the physical and the emotional, and a solid loving foundation keeps you hot for each other. In long-term relationships, you have to be intentional about it. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Get to know each other, over and over
Sometimes life just gets in the way, and your to-do list takes priority over fostering real connection with your partner. To counter feelings of disconnectedness, spend time every night talking — really talking — about feelings and ideas, not about what needs to be done around the house. Remember how inquisitive you were when you were just beginning to date? Get to know your partner on that level again.
Need help getting started? On your next date night, download the Gottman Card Decks app and take turns asking one another the open-ended questions.
Science says keep things fresh and new
Routine has its place — you need it for day-to-day efficiency. Certain things benefit from mixing it up on the regular, and staying connected with your partner is one of those times.
New experiences help your hypothalamus pump out the brain chemical dopamine, in anticipation of an awesome outcome. You might have heard that dopamine is the reward chemical, but it’s actually the brain chemical involved in getting you to that reward.
Dopamine, the brain chemical responsible for motivation and reinforcement, is responsible for making an animal do something over and over again. Because of its role in seeking behaviors, dopamine has a major effect on sex drive. The more dopamine surges around sex and your partner, the more you go after him or her.
So, how do you get a nice dopamine surge when you need it? Try new things with your partner. When you explore a new place or try a new activity with your partner, a hit of dopamine signals to your brain that this was a motivationally significant event. Then, what’s known as an adaptive memory is created with the motivation to seek repeating the scenario again. The more adaptive memories that include your partner, the more you’ll seek each other out.
New experiences don’t have to be extravagant exotic vacations. They don’t have to be lovey-dovey romance-centered date nights. While you should certainly throw vacations and date nights into the rotation, you’re more likely to consistently explore with your partner if you opt for cheap and accessible new experiences, like:
- Trying a new hiking trail
- Exploring a new park
- Grabbing a tourism pamphlet for your own area and hitting a few spots you’ve never seen
- Taking an art class together and creating something new
- Sampling something you’ve never tried from a new restaurant
- Doing something outside your comfort zone, or something that even scares you but carries no real danger
Feeling supported at home
Back in the day, men worked outside the home and women took on childcare and housework. As more women entered the workforce, men started picking up more of the cooking, cleaning, and parenting, but studies show that the bulk of the “third shift” still falls on the shoulders of women. Married mothers take on almost twice the housework and over three times the childcare as compared to married fathers.
Even when traditional male and female roles do not apply, it’s typical for one person to take on the majority of the “third shift.” When the imbalance is substantial, one person is likely to be legitimately too tired, or even resentful. Overwork and the fatigue and resentment that come with it will certainly quiet your bedroom.
If you’re hitting some communication blocks
If your relationship is on the rocks, it might manifest as trouble in the bedroom. Communication is the solution, which isn’t always easy. Relationship counseling might help guide the conversation toward a place of understanding.
So, what can you do to help increase a low sex drive? Finding out what works for you involves a little trial and error. Here are some things to get you started:
- Look into non-hormonal birth control methods. Once you’re off of hormonal birth control, you’ll see improvement rather quickly, but give your hormones time to stabilize.
- Clean up your diet. If you’re eating food that feeds your cells and keeps your toxic load low, you have the best chance at optimal hormone function and lower chance of libido-killing conditions like depression. More info on that here.
- See if you can slowly reduce your use of plastics and swap out your cleaning and personal care products with natural alternatives.
- Minimize your stress. Start a meditation practice or explore supplementing with adaptogenic herbs.
- Sleep! See how you can restructure your day to tack on an extra 30 minutes on either end, or work in an afternoon snooze. Or, if insomnia’s your problem, read this piece on how to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Look into natural ways to increase sex drive. Don’t go into the sex supplements world willy-nilly. There’s a lot of snake oil out there. Find a qualified functional medicine doctor to help you identify your exact issues and find what will work for you.
- Communicate. If you need to lighten your housework load or if you have unresolved issues with your partner, open up the conversation.
- Prioritize intimacy with your partner. Intimacy doesn’t have to mean sex. Do the things that make you feel closer as a couple. Making a regular practice of date nights, cuddling, and meaningful conversations goes a long way to strengthening your relationship.
- Maca root increases production of male hormones without making you grow chest hair. For women, it can be just enough of a boost to get you going.
- Start before you’re feeling frisky. Sometimes, just showing up is enough to get you going.
Even if you’re in a slump now, you can enjoy a long, fulfilling sex life even as you age. Try a few of these small changes. You’ll be surprised at the difference, and how quickly your body responds.