Honey, I Am
In the Mood
No woman has to live with a lagging libido.
By Lisa James
She wasn’t sure when it started, but the retired schoolteacher—we’ll call her Arlene—noticed that something was amiss in the bedroom: She was having trouble reaching orgasm, “a first for me.” What’s more, Arlene had gained 25 pounds over 13 years, which left her feeling “unsexy.”
Other physical difficulties also interfered with desire. “I had significant vaginal dryness so I almost dreaded intercourse,” says Arlene, 72, who lives with her husband on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. She then had an attack of shingles; this developed into the burning pain that marks the shingles complication postherpetic neuralgia, “a perfect setup for not wanting to be touched,” she notes.
A lack of desire is only a problem if a woman thinks it is. “The key is whether a person is content with how much sex they are having or not having, and if their intimate partner is in sync with that or not,” says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, medical director of the Steelsmith Natural Health Center in Honolulu and the doctor with whom Arlene eventually consulted. There is no absolute measure of what is ‘normal’ and what isn’t ‘normal.’”
But lots of women aren’t happy about their lack of interest in sex. According to a 2016 Harris Poll conducted for the American Sexual Health Association, 48% of premenopausal women said their sex drive was lower than it had been, and 46% of women in a relationship thought that low desire was putting their relationship at risk.
In the arcane world of medical coding, female desire disorders have gone by a number of official designations; what was hypoactive sexual desire disorder is now officially labeled as sexual interest/arousal disorder. But such differences are meaningless to women such as Arlene, who simply want to regain the eagerness they once felt about lovemaking.
Obstacles to Desire
As Arlene’s experience shows, feeling unwell can dampen a woman’s desire (and a man’s; see the box below). “It’s extremely clear that the more ill a woman is, the more likely she is to have a multitude of sexual dysfunctions,” says Serena McKenzie, ND, IF, medical director of the Northwest Institute for Healthy Sexuality in Kirkland, Washington.
The vaginal dryness Arlene experienced often occurs as a part of menopause, when estrogen levels fall. Steelsmith explains that when this happens, genital tissues “can become thin, dry and fragile.” What’s more, changing hormonal levels can affect brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. “This in turn can affect mood, sleep and concentration, and cause disruption in a woman’s daily rhythms and relationships,” says Steelsmith, author (with Alex Steelsmith) of Great Sex, Naturally (Hay House).
Poor body image, such as Arlene feeling “unsexy,” is another female buzzkill. “If you feel, ‘I look awful naked,’ it’s going to affect desire,” says Virginia Sadock, MD, director of NYU Langone Medical Center’s Program in Human Sexuality and Sex Therapy in New York City. And while there are cultural images of the ideal male body, Sadock notes that “the standards are much more relaxed for men.”
Another difference between the genders lies in the experience of arousal itself. “Men are aware when they’re having a sense of arousal,” Sadock says. “Women are not always aware of arousal. Women are more complicated.”
“The science is telling us that the process of growing from a baby girl into a woman is—at least in terms of sexual response—totally not the same as the process of growing from a baby boy into a man,” adds Emily Nagoski, PhD, sex educator and author of Come As You Are (Simon & Schuster).
Accelerators and Brakes
Research has also revealed how desire is driven by a set of checks and balances within the brain.
This system has two parts. The sexual inhibition system (SIS) scans for both sexual threats, like a sketchy guy leering in a bar, and situations in which arousal would be inappropriate, like a dinner with one’s parents. On the other hand, the sexual excitation system (SES) is always on the lookout for what Nagoski calls “sexually relevant data”—anything from a romantic caress to seeing a toned body in board shorts—which sets arousal in motion.
The SIS/SES system is like a car’s brakes and accelerators, says Nagoski, who blogs at thedirtynormal.com. She explains that these components are set at different levels in each person; low desire can result when the brain either can’t fully engage the accelerator (low SES) or fully disengage the brake (high SIS).
What’s more, “the evidence is mounting that women’s sexual response is more sensitive than men’s to context, including mood and relationship factors,” Nagoski says. “Improve your context and your sexual pleasure will expand on its own.”
Lighting the Fire
McKenzie says a treatment plan for low desire looks at both sides of the equation. “How do we address sexual deterrents—pain, depression, medication side effects—and then how do we improve motivation?” she asks. “There is no one-size-fits-all treatment.” In her practice, McKenzie uses cognitive behavioral sexual therapy, pelvic floor physical therapy and other approaches, and helps patients manage depression or anxiety along with sexual side effects of medication.
Stress relief is crucial; 80% of people report less desire when stressed. The solution? “Physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle and recalibrating your central nervous system into a calm state,” Nagoski says.
Diet also plays a role in kindling desire. Steelsmith considers chocolate a “flagship food aphrodisiac.” For one thing, it contains a substance called PEA, which Steelsmith calls “a neurotransmitter that our brains release when we fall in love.” Chocolate also supplies L-arginine, which encourages better genital blood flow; according to Steelsmith, this amino acid has also been shown in research to “work synergistically with herbal aphrodisiacs.” Such remedies include damiana, a Mexican plant long used to encourage greater desire; maca, a Peruvian tuber thought to boost sexual energy; and velvet bean, employed as an aphrodisiac in traditional Indian medicine.
Several Asian herbs have been used for centuries to boost desire; Steelsmith says they “nourish overall vitality which in turn creates great health and builds sexual energy.” For example, dong quai has been called “female ginseng,” a revitalizing tonic used to not only boost desire but also ease women’s hormonal problems such as menstrual cramps and menopause symptoms. And an herbal blend, Alanzeebium, is a female libido aid that combines two traditional plant remedies from India.
McKenzie urges women who want to feel sexually vital to actively seek help instead of simply giving up. “Sexuality is one of the very best experiences in being human,” she says. “Sex is worth fighting for.”
Arlene, the retired teacher, won her fight. Her husband “never once complained. He waited patiently and we worked together to solve the issues.” Part of the solution was getting busy on a regular basis; “we would laugh about how we needed to schedule lovemaking,” Arlene recalls.
Between minding their grandkids and other commitments, finding time can still be an issue for Arlene and her husband. But she adds, “Every time we have sex we say, ‘Why aren’t we doing this more often?’”
Concoctions to Rev Up
Your Date Night
One way to maintain sexual interest is to add a little something extra to one’s love life with new scents and tastes. “Each of us responds differently to different stimuli,” writes holistic esthetician Stephanie Tourles in Making Love Potions: 64 All-Natural Recipes for Irresistible Herbal Aphrodisiacs (Storey). “To figure out what works for you and your partner, you’ll have to experiment and that in itself can certainly be a stimulating exploration!”
Love Is in the Air Massage Oil
“Provocative vetiver [a grass species native to India] brings the warmth, and lovely lavender brings the sweet, producing an earthy, smoky, exotic aroma with light grassy-floral undertones and a unisex appeal,” says Tourles. She especially recommends this oil for couples under high stress who want to unwind.
36 drops lavender essential oil
28 drops vetiver essential oil
1 cup jojoba oil (or sunflower or almond oil)
1,000 IU vitamin E oil
Combine the essential oils in an 8-ounce storage bottle; add the jojoba and vitamin E. Screw on the top and shake vigorously to blend the ingredients. Label and place in a dark location at room temperature (between 60° and 80°) for 24 hours so that the oils can synergize. Can be stored, away from heat and light, for up to two years (one year if you used sunflower or almond oil).
To use, shake well and apply either as a massage oil or a deeply penetrating body oil. To use in a bath, add 1 tablespoon to running water.
Sex on the Beach Love Butter
Toules says the ingredients in this eminently edible creation “nourish and lubricate the skin.” She adds that, thanks to its alluring aroma, “your lover might just want to devour you for dinner…”
5 tbsp unrefined extra-virgin coconut oil
2 tbsp almond or sunflower oil
1 tbsp cocoa butter
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan or double boiler and warm over low heat until all the solids are just melted. Remove from the heat and let cool 5 to 10 minutes, stirring a few times to blend. Pour into a 4-ounce jar or tin, cap and label; it may take up to 24 hours to thicken. (You can use a squeeze bottle if the temperature is consistently over 76° to keep the coconut oil liquid.) Can be stored, away from heat and light, for up to one year. (Caution: This butter is not latex-friendly.)
Excerpted from Making Love Potions © by Stephanie L. Tourles, used with permission from Storey Publishing (http://www.storey.com/books/making-love-potions).