Whether it’s a recent pregnancy, new job stress, or an underlying health issue, many women complain about a lack of sex drive at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, many don’t know what the cause is of their dip in desire and blame themselves, or resign themselves (and their partners) to a much diminished sex life. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some ways to improve libido and increase sex drive in women, naturally of course!
Causes of Low Sex Drive & Libido in Women
To fix the problem we have to first understand what’s going on under the surface. Here are some of the most common causes of low sex drive in women:
- Psychological causes- Low self esteem, body image issues, bad past sexual experience, sexual abuse, mental health issues. Just stressing or feeling guilty about low libido can perpetuate the problem.
- Physical problems- Pain during sex or an inability to orgasm could affect desire. Surgery, especially related to the breasts or genital area. Vaginal atrophy and dryness (which occurs naturally with age and menopause) may also be making sex uncomfortable.
- Health issues- When the body is working on healing it’s less likely to put effort into a sex drive. This can include arthritis, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and neurological diseases among many others.
- Prescription medications
- Smoking and drinking
- Fatigue- Newsflash: caring for small children can be exhausting!
- Hormonal changes and imbalances- May be caused by pregnancy, breastfeeding, postpartum, menopause.
There can be one or more of the above reasons affecting sex drive at any given time. Obviously if there are any causes on this list that can be easily fixed, you may want to consider doing so (like quitting smoking).
How Hormones Affect Sexual Desire
Hormonal dysfunction may be the most common reason for low sex drive in women. Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers. They travel in the bloodstream to tissues and organs. They affect many different processes including sexual function.
The most common hormones that affect libido are:
- Cortisol– Dysfunctional stress in the body is the root cause of most if not all hormone imbalances. Cortisol imbalance means it may be too high, too low, or it may fluctuate. In a biological sense, it makes sense that in times of high stress (like during a famine) the body would want to avoid pregnancy. The natural mechanism to do that may be low libido and infertility.
- Testosterone– Often thought of as a man’s hormone, testosterone is incredibly important for women’s sexual health too. It’s the main hormone responsible for sex drive in both men and women. However, just increasing testosterone isn’t enough to improve sex drive alone. All hormones work together and need to stay in balance (and at the proper levels) for optimal health.
- Estrogen– Though estrogen is very important for sexual function, too much is not good. The more estrogen in a woman’s body the less testosterone there is. This is called estrogen dominance and is one of the biggest contributors to sexual dysfunction.
- Progesterone, prolactin, and luteinizing hormone– These hormones also play a role in female sex drive. These hormones change throughout the month, causing normal hills and valleys in sex drive. However, if they are out of balance they can affect sex drive in a more serious way.
The bottom line: Hormones in the body are very complicated and have a complicated effect on each other. Hormones are so important for sex drive (and many other functions in the body) that even a slight disruption in balance can cause problems.
How Hormones Become Imbalanced
Hormones get out of balance in a number of ways:
- Hormonal birth control– Synthetic hormones increase thyroid and sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) which can decrease the available testosterone and thyroid hormone in the body. In a trial all three hormonal birth control types that were tested were found to increase SHBG.
- Environmental endocrine disruptors– The endocrine system is very important for optimal hormonal balance. Endocrine disruptors can mimic natural hormones in the body and bind to receptors, leaving no receptors for natural hormones. People exposed to some kinds of endocrine disruptors have less testosterone in the body. Estrogenic foods like soy and certain additives should also be avoided.
- Hypothyroidism– The thyroid, just like any other part of the body, doesn’t work on its own. One way it can affect sex drive is that if the thyroid is working slowly (hypothyroid) then the reproductive system is working slowly too. One study show that women with thyroid disease have a higher prevalence of low sex drive. Women with hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) may also have low sex drive but are more likely to oscillate between high and low libido. Read more about thyroid imbalance in this post.
- Chronic stress– Though stress can diminish libido in obvious psychological ways, stress has a hormonal effect on the body that is often to blame. Stress causes production of cortisol which can inhibit the function of the hypothalamus (the organ that sends out many of the hormonal signals in the body).
Ways to Naturally Increase Female Sex Drive
Boosting a low sex drive is completely possible! Since hormonal imbalance is the biggest factor for a low sex drive in women, balancing hormones is the best thing to do to improve libido.
- Eat plenty of healthy fats– Polyunsaturated fats (like those from vegetable oils) do not give the body the building blocks it needs to produce hormones. Choose fats from healthy sources like coconut oil, real butter, olive oil, and animal fats (tallow, lard) instead and eat lots of high omega-3 fish.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet– On top of eating enough fat, the diet should be nutrient dense. Pastured eggs (especially the yolk), high quality, pastured meats and offal (liver), fruits and vegetables, and fermented foods are nutrient dense. Zinc is an essential trace element that is necessary for hormone balance. Pregnant and nursing women are at higher risk for zinc deficiency (and they are also more likely to experience low libido). Zinc can usually be found in high enough quantities in foods like beef, oysters, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and crab. (These foods are sometimes considered aphrodisiacs!)
- Fix leptin– Leptin is a master hormone, and if it is out of balance (or if you are resistant to it) other hormones are more likely to be out of balance. Fixing leptin will also help boost fertility, make weight loss easier, improve sleep, and lower inflammation.
- Limit caffeine– Bad news for coffee lovers (like me), but caffeine can overwhelm the endocrine system, especially if there are other hormone stressors involved, like pregnancy, presence of toxins, beneficial fat imbalance or stress. As much as I love it, I try to make sure I take breaks from coffee, or drink coffee with lower caffeine and added health benefits. There are many healthy coffee alternatives, like herbal tea, dandelion root tea latte, and chicory root “coffee.”
- Avoid hormonal birth control– The hormones in birth control can wreak havoc on the body’s natural hormones, sending them into imbalance. There are many natural alternatives to hormonal birth control too.
- Prioritize sleep– At night the body is active producing hormones (among other things) so sleep is essential for hormonal balance. One of many ways to naturally improve your sleep is to block blue light before bed. Blocking blue light helps the body produce melatonin (a hormone that induces sleep).
- Essential oils– Though there are a number of essential oils that help balance hormones, the two that stand out are clary sage and lavender. These two oils have been the most studied and show significant benefit in balancing hormones.
- Clary sage essential oil is amazing at alleviating pain, reducing the feeling of stress, and improving hormone balance. Clary sage has unique hormone like compounds that help to balance out estrogen production in the body.
- Lavender essential oil helps balance hormones, offers pain relief (especially abdominal cramps associated with PMS and menstrual symptoms), and decreases feelings of stress and depression.
Supplements to Boost Libido
When diet and lifestyle are optimized, supplements may be what’s needed to get the libido back on track.
- Maca root– Maca root has been used for centuries in the Andes Mountains. Maca’s high iodine is great for thyroid health (which is important for libido health too) and its high zinc level is important for sex hormones. Read more about it here.
- Vitamins/minerals– Though nutrients from food are best, the foods we eat are often depleted of these important nutrients (because of depleted soil, bad growing practices, etc.) so supplementation may be necessary. Vitamin D, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids are typically needed in supplement form.
- DHEA cream– If vaginal atrophy or dryness is a factor, consider using a topical vulvar cream with DHEA like the one medical advisor Dr. Anna Cabeca recommends in this podcast on vaginal health.
Final Thoughts on Improving Low Libido
Decreased libido is a real problem for so many women (and men!) and stressful on both sides of any relationship. I’ll be asking experts about this topic more in the future both on the blog and on the podcast and exploring the mind-body connection that may be at play in addition to the physical causes.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Galamaga, whois a board-certified internal medicine physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Did pregnancy, breastfeeding, or another hormonal change cause low libido for you? What was your experience?