“Masturbation is nice because I get off social media for a bit,” comedian and author Ginny Hogan recently tweeted. After screen time soared and sexual activity took a hit during lockdown, it’s a good reminder that nurturing your libido and finding pleasure solo or with a partner is a powerful form of self-care. Not to mention, it can be a measure of overall health and wellness. “I think libido is a vital sign, another way of checking in on the body and the body talking to us,” says Dr. Taz Bhatia, integrative wellness physician and host of the Super Woman Wellness podcast. “Don’t dismiss it.” The first step to charting your sex drive? Understanding your libido better. Three experts break down everything you need to know about your libido and how to boost it for better sexual wellness.
What is libido?
Different people may define the term in different ways, but scientifically speaking, libido is typically used to refer to one’s overall sex drive, or the degree to which someone has interest in and desire for sex. “It’s probably best to think of libido as a biopsychosocial phenomenon, meaning it is affected by a mix of biological, psychological, and social and environmental factors,” explains Justin Lehmiller, MD, social psychologist, sex researcher, and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute.
What does it mean to have a high or low libido?
In the simplest of terms, low libido is when there is minimal to no sexual interest and desire, while, conversely, high libido is when there is frequent or strong sexual interest and desire, says Lehmiller. However, he and many other experts underline that sex drive is a subjective parameter and varies from one individual to the next. “Each person likely measures their level of drive based on what they consider to be their ‘normal’, so once a week may be normal for one person while every day might be normal for someone else,” explains Anita Sadaty, MD, attending physician in obstetrics and gynaecology at Northwell Health System.
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What causes a loss of libido?
When guiding patients through what impacts their libido, Sadaty most often finds the following to be underlying causes:
- Stress: “Broadly speaking, women need to be relaxed to want sex whereas men have sex to relax. This often explains why libido increases for women on vacation.”
- Fatigue: “Oftentimes sleep trumps sex for women. Studies show that if women sleep eight hours a night, libido goes up. This is likely related to the effect of disrupted circadian rhythm on the balance of stress hormone and female sex hormones.”
- Relationship Conflict: “Some consider a woman’s brain the biggest sexual organ in the body. If there is emotional tension within a couple that stress can reduce libido.”
- Medication Side Effects: “Anti-depressants, narcotic pain medications, anxiolytics and blood pressure medications can reduce libido. Anti-depressants impact the serotonin pathway, which can reduce dopamine levels. Dopamine is critical to sexual appetite.”
- Hormones: “Estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol — there are tons of hormone receptors in the brain that can trigger sexual desire. Additionally, adequate hormone levels will keep sexual organs functioning properly. Hormones increase blood flow to pelvic organs, such as the vagina, labia, clitoris and uterus, which improves lubrication, sensation and orgasm.”
Sadaty also notes that mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, can curb sex drive, as can pain with intercourse. On the whole, sexual desire tends to follow the curve of hormone levels for women. “It is highest probably in the late teens and 20s, may dip in the 30s for some, and then is often more impacted in the 40s and 50s,” explains Sadaty. “There are so many reasons for this, but as a general rule when we get older life can become more complicated, relationships become harder in some cases, stress levels rise, hormones fluctuate or drop, and medical issues can arise.”
How has the global pandemic and lockdown impacted women’s libidos?
“I think women have been super stressed during the pandemic and lockdown and for most, libido has gone down,” explains Bhatia, also noting the declining birth rate. “The juggling is overwhelming and intimacy gets thrown out the window.” Sadaty has also seen a tremendous drop in libido for many women directly related to stress, epidemic levels of anxiety and depression, and the rise in the use of psychotropic medications, relationship discord, and isolation. Supporting what’s been observed anecdotally, at the Kinsey Institute Lehmiller participated in a longitudinal study last year that explored how Covid-19 affected people’s sex lives and relationships. “One of the things we found among women was that sexual desire, sexual frequency, and partnered sex all declined compared to pre-pandemic levels,” he explains. “This makes sense, given what a uniquely stressful period this was.”
Additionally, other studies have found that women’s libido was affected more than men’s, with a bigger decrease in women’s masturbation compared to men. “One factor is that we saw greater concern about the pandemic among women, to the extent that they were more anxious overall, which could have translated to a bigger effect on their sex drive,” he explains. “But it’s also the case that women were disproportionately stressed during the pandemic, especially in terms of picking up more parenting, household, and caregiver responsibilities compared to men.”
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How can you boost libido?
“Boosting libido requires a deeper dive into the cause and, once that is uncovered, you can [better] direct treatment,” says Sadaty, who encourages women to consult a doctor to help identify underlying causes of low libido, as well as develop sex drive-boosting strategies. If one’s libido level is causing persistent, sustained distress or problems in one’s life, Lehmiller recommends consulting with a physician or a certified sex therapist to locate the cause or causes, because treatment will vary depending on whether the root is a hormone issue, stress, relationship problem, or another issue. That being said, there are many things a woman can do on her own including “mindfulness or meditation techniques to reduce stress, incorporating more novelty into one’s sex life such as using sex toys, because novelty can help to awaken sexual excitement and desire, and taking more time to build arousal,” he explains.
“Some women only tend to experience what’s known as ‘responsive desire’, which refers to desire that appears in response to pleasure and sexual activity,” he continues. “This is different from ‘spontaneous desire’, which is the kind of sexual desire that just hits you out of the blue. Some women with low desire are just more of the responsive type, which requires taking a different approach to sex and looking for more external stimulators and ways to build arousal so that the desire component kicks in.”
When guiding patients, one of Sadaty’s biggest suggestions is to make time for sex, whether you're masturbating or doing it with a partner. “It gives you time to mentally prepare and may get you in the mood,” she says. She also recommends exercising, which increases sympathetic nervous system activity and increases genital blood flow, and getting enough sleep as it helps to improve testosterone levels and reduce stress hormones, such as cortisol. Sadaty notes that aphrodisiacs, including oysters and chocolate, and herbal supplements, such as maca root, which is found in Moon Juice’s cult-favourite adaptogenic blend Sex Dust, can also help get you in the mood. All in all, it’s important to know what’s normal for you, what strategies are most effective, and how your mental and physical health could be impacting things with help from a physician or specialist.