While people all over the nation are trying to romance their sweetheart’s this Valentine’s Day, many others in long-term relationships are finding it difficult to keep the spark going. Sometimes society would have us believe that marriage and commitment mean perpetual bliss. Valentine’s Day can often leave us feeling inferior as we scroll through social media and see all of the happy couples and gifts on display. The truth is, despite all of the flowers, cards, and gifts, many women (and men) suffer with problems such as lack of desire, difficulty achieving orgasm, and sometimes are even in pain.
As both my husband and I have suffered from difficult, unromantic, and less than loving relationships in our previous marriages, it became important to me to learn new ways to make sure that we have a healthy and fulfilling relationship both in and out of the bedroom. I read Esther Perel’s delightful book, Mating in Captivity which pointed out that many of the reasons why long-term relationships suffer in the end is due to our twisted expectations of each other, our over-arching American work ethic when applied to eroticism, and our over-emphasis of equality in the bedroom (sometimes, inequality and power differentials can be a good thing). I feel that her opinions on these matters are particularly important, because after all, a woman’s sexual health seems to be mostly related to what is going on between her ears rather than between her legs.
While our relationships with each other, our mental health, our self-esteem, and our overall mood are the most important factors in our sexual health, there are some other extraneous influences that may interfere with libido and satisfaction in detrimental ways. Many medications can interfere with libido including treatments for high blood pressure, anti-depressants, oral contraceptive pills, hormones, steroids, and even medications for gastric reflux. Women who have had surgeries, radiation, or multiple pregnancies may suffer from difficulty and pain during sex.
Many neurotransmitters are involved in the cycle of arousal and climax. Certain medications, menopause, peri-menopause, and especially stress and fatigue can cause alterations of these important chemicals in our brain.
While optimizing mental health and reviewing any outside influences to sex drive may be the most important things we can do for our sexual health, there are a few natural remedies that help boost sex drive in women and men. Here are few of my Valentine’s favorites:
The epic sale of chocolate during Valentine’s Day actually has more to it than retailers would have you believe. Women don’t just crave chocolate for no good reason, dark chocolate (specifically greater than 70%) actually acts as an aphrodisiac. Chocolate contains tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin, the feel-good hormone. The other chemical that is present in chocolate is phenylethylamine which is a stimulant that is related to the release of dopamine. Dopamine floods our brains when we fall in love. The higher the percentage of dark chocolate, the more concentrated these chemicals will be. So be sure not to skip the chocolate if you are wanting to be more romantic on Valentine’s Day!
While the season for Pumpkin Spice Latte’s may be over at Starbucks, these little seeds can be helpful for your sex drive. Pumpkin seeds contain plenty of Magnesium, which can be helpful with anxiety and put you more in the mood. They also contain zinc, which helps with the production of sex hormones and aids in sperm motility.
Living in New Mexico, I LOVE to find out the health benefits of our beloved chile that we eat with practically every meal. Rejoice, fellow New Mexicans, and liberally add your choice of red or green to your plate because chile can increase the feel-good chemicals called endorphins in our brains, making us happier, more relaxed, AND more interested in sex. Maybe that’s why they call it the Land of Enchantment.
We have all heard of the aphrodisiac qualities of oysters again and again, but I can personally attest to the fact that I became pregnant the night after eating Bluff oysters in New Zealand after not getting pregnant for 5 years. Oysters increase dopamine, the love chemical, and have plenty of zinc that is especially good for male fertility.
Remember this love-colored fruit because it contains citrulline, an amino acid that has vaso-dilating effects, similar to the prescription medication Viagra. This helps men AND women achieve more sexual arousal.
This little vegetable is nature’s Viagra. It assists in the production of nitric oxide, which results in vasodilation (think more blood flow to the genitals). Not only can it assist in lowering your blood pressure, but it can assist in maintaining erections and increases sexual desire in women and men, much like Viagra can.
If you really want to stoke your love partner’s fire, it’s a good idea to fire up your diffuser and your essential oils. Inhaling this oil activates receptors in the brain more directly through your nose. This results in the release of love chemicals quickly in the event that you need a rapid response (but not too rapid!).
Throw some tofu in your dinner in the weeks before Valentine’s Day and have some Edamame with your sushi because soy contains isoflavones which are phytoestrogens that can aid in the production of female sex hormones and can increase libido. These compounds are also anti-inflammatory, and can help ward off cancer.
Maca, (Lepidium peruvianu), is a root from the Andes mountains of Peru that has been prized for centuries for its aphrodisiac effects. It is particularly helpful for woman’s libido, and menopausal symptoms. It has also been used as an adaptogenic herb, meaning it is helpful for assisting the body in dealing with stress. For this reason it is also a mood-stabilizer, which can help us all to get in the mood.
I seem to mention this herb in nearly every article, because its just so good at so many things. It helps with anxiety, depression, insomnia, AND it increases sex drive. As I have said before, this herb is an adaptogen, so it is helpful for assisting the body in dealing with chronic stress. When stress hormones are being cranked out by our adrenal glands, it becomes impossible for our brains to focus on sex. Blood flow and attention is diverted to survival, rather than reproduction. Balancing these hormones can result in a better mood and a better sex drive.
This herb is known for its potent effects on the brain as far as concentration and preventing demenia. It can also be stimulating to sex drive and libido as well. It can also decrease the symptoms of PMS, such as breast tenderness and mood problems which can surely put a damper on any desire for sex.
This herb, Eurycoma longifolia, has been used in Asia for centuries. It should have a bitter taste in order to be authentic, and it is known to treat erectile dysfunction and low libido. The root can be boiled, and made into a tonic for its aphrodisiac qualities. It is used in the ancient medicine traditions of Indonesia. In studies when this herb was used for 12 weeks it increased sexual desire and a sense of wellbeing in men. There is not as much data in women, but it could also be helpful for a lack of sexual desire (although some data shows that it increases testosterone levels).
I would also like to say a word about alcohol, marijuana, and other mind-altering substances. Although society would have us believe that engaging in a few drinks or a joint will loosen up our inhibitions and lead to better sex, the opposite is quite often the result. Although you may feel less inhibited and slide into bed easier than you would normally, alcohol and marijuana can both inhibit orgasm. This can lead to a night of unfulfilling intercourse, a headache, and a foggy memory of the night before. If sexual desire and lack of orgasm are an issue, its better to skip the depressants in favor of a clear mind and heart.
As you can see, mood has a great deal to do with our sex lives and our overall enjoyment of sex. However, the prescription drugs that are meant to treat mood disorders, the SSRI’s, can actually inhibit orgasm and sex drive. I don’t know about you, but taking away something that pleasurable and fun is NOT going to going to help MY depression. While these medications may be necessary to alleviate the symptoms of severe depression, if one faces challenges in the bedroom a change in medication or an augmentation with one of these herbs may be helpful.
Integrative Medicine practitioners can help you find the right treatment for you, and work with the prescription medications that you are already taking. These statements are not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Please seek out an Integrative Medicine practitioner in your area to create a personalized plan for you.
Dr. Erin Fenstermacher is a Board-Certified Internal Medicine Physician and Fellowship-Trained Integrative Medicine Physician with a practice in Albuquerque New Mexico as well as a Telemedicine practice available in other states.