What Your Sex Drive Reveals About Your Health
by Dr. Bill Rawls | Posted February 17th, 2018
I have a personal question for you — no judgment, no need to answer out loud, but I encourage you to be honest with yourself: How’s your sexual energy? Consider both your level of desire and your ability to follow through on that desire.
If you answered that it isn’t what it used to be, you’re not alone — research suggests low sexual energy has become a worldwide epidemic in both men and women. And perhaps more importantly, a lack of sexual health and vitality can be a harbinger of more health concerns to come.
One study from 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism highlights the degree of the problem in men: The researchers documented a 15% decline in levels of androgens, male sex hormones, over a 20-year period, from 1985 to 2005.
And in a study published in Human Reproduction Update last year, researchers documented a 60% decline in sperm counts over the past 40 years in Western countries, including North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
In women, age is often blamed for low libido, but turns out that’s not the case. Though decline in sexual energy is common after menopause, a 2012 review in Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests the prevalence is between 25% and 68% in women of all ages.
The magnitude of the issue has hatched an entire industry of artificial solutions. But before you go there, consider what else might be going on with your body.
Low sexual energy is rarely a solo symptom. It’s usually accompanied by low energy in general, decreased stamina and physical performance, depressed mood, mental sluggishness and apathy, and low immune functions. The epidemic just got more complicated.
So what’s to blame for this whole suite of symptoms? The Human Reproduction Update study hit the nail on the head by citing three top potential causes: obesity, endocrine-disrupting chemical toxicants, and chronic stress.
The Top 3 Reasons Your Spark Is Gone
These three factors are intimately tied to changes that have occurred in the modern world in the past hundred years. People today are living longer, but they aren’t necessarily enjoying better health, sexual or otherwise.
The rate of obesity in America is now over 30%, and the health implications for both men and women are significant. While many people are aware of the link between obesity and health conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, they don’t consider how it impacts sexual health.
Fat is stored in adipose cells, but adipose cells do more than house fat — they are hormonally active. Adipose cells convert androgens in the body to estrogen, and the more adipose cells you have, the lower your androgens are compared to estrogens. Too-high levels of estrogen are associated with increased risk of hormonally related cancers — breast cancer in women, and possibly prostate cancer in men.
It’s also important to look at what’s behind our obesity rates as a potential player in declining sexual vitality. The rise in obesity in developed countries over the past 40 years directly parallels the increase in consumption of refined carbohydrates.
We crave carbs because they’re the ideal fuel for muscle contraction, plus the brain prefers carbohydrates as an energy source. And modern food producers are taking advantage of that and crafting carb-heavy food products to cater to our intense cravings. The problem is that we don’t need much carbohydrate to survive — the body is designed to run lean — and carb overload impacts hormone levels.
When excessive carbohydrate consumption becomes a habit, insulin levels start to rise. Insulin is the primary hormone that regulates absorption of carbohydrates from the bloodstream and into tissues. Chronically high insulin can lead to insulin resistance (a precursor to type 2 diabetes) and disrupt all hormone functions in the body, especially glandular functions like the production of testosterone — a key player in sex drive in both men and women.
And one more issue with excess carbohydrates: Any carbs that your body doesn’t burn are stored as hormone-disrupting fat — a problem compounded by our increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
2. Endocrine-Disrupting Chemical Toxicants
The bulk of modern-day toxins can be traced to our collective embrace of petroleum. And while use of petroleum over the past 40 years has made modern life more comfortable in immeasurable ways, we’re paying the price of convenience with our health.
The chemical industry converts petroleum distillates into a near infinite variety of chemical compounds that are used for everything imaginable — pesticides, plastics, skin care products, and beyond. These compounds permeate air, water, food, and most everything you touch, and they are all potential toxicants to biological lifeforms.
Many have estrogenic activity, meaning they can disrupt the endocrine system, the collection of organs and glands that regulate sexual function, reproduction, metabolism, sleep, and more. Indeed, research has linked pesticides with suppressed sexual functions in both men and women and increased risk of a variety of cancers, including breast cancer and possibly prostate cancer.
It’s important to note that not all chemical endocrine disruptors are petroleum based: The list of modern culprits also includes a variety of prescription drugs. Antidepressants and oral contraceptives are some of the best known to adversely affect sexual energy.
Chronic stress is such a prevailing modern-day problem, it’s become socially normalized — we’re all just living with a certain level of pervasive, low-grade tension. But to our body, it’s anything but normal.
When you live in a constant state of alert, all systems of the body, especially energy systems, are taxed. In essence, chronic stress over-energizes you to the point that your nervous system becomes irritable and agitated.
One of the most pronounced effects is disruption of the hypothalamus. This walnut-sized structure at the base of the brain is the center of the most important hormone pathways in the body: It controls the pituitary gland, which secretes growth hormone (energy) and hormones that regulate the thyroid hormones gland (metabolism); the adrenal glands (maintenance functions); and the ovaries and testes (reproductive functions). The hypothalamus is also where endorphins, the feel good chemicals we all need to feel well, are produced.
This entire system is referred to as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis. Disruption of the HPA axis is associated with compromised digestive function, low energy, elevated blood sugar, reduced stress tolerance, chronic sleep disturbances, weight gain, suppressed immune function, and certainly inhibited sexual energy.
By the way, chronic stress is not the only thing that throws the HPA axis off balance: Obesity and endocrine-disrupting toxicants also send abnormal feedback messages to the hypothalamus, thus destabilizing the HPA axis and triggering the many health concerns that come with it.
7 Ways To Fight the Fizzle
If you’re dragging, sexually or otherwise, your vital energy systems are suffering. Caffeine might give you a short term boost, but to feel truly energized, you must address what’s robbing energy from your body. Making a few simple changes in how you go about life can dramatically increase your vitality.
1. Run lean.
Eating excessive carbohydrates is like flooding the carburetor on your car — the engine sputters and stalls. Do it often enough to raise your insulin levels, and you can kiss your sexual energy goodbye. Avoiding carb-loaded processed foods and drinks is essential for regaining your energy.
Instead, eating a balanced diet of fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, and lean meat provides an optimal blend of carbs and fat, along with protective antioxidants and other substances to keep your engine running smoothly. You don’t necessarily have to exclude grains and beans completely, but these high carb food sources should make up a small portion of your total diet. How much is relative — someone backpacking the Appalachian Trail may need 5-10 times more carbs (and fat) than a person with average activity levels.
2. Eat organic and grass-fed whenever practical.
Pesticides and herbicides with potential hormonal activity are present in trace amounts in most conventional foods. They also concentrate in the fatty tissues of animals that are fed corn and soybeans grown with chemicals—grain-fed beef and pork have the highest concentrations.
3. Clean up your water.
For starters, filter your water. Estrogen from oral contraceptive users and a long list of other synthetic chemicals have been found in municipal water supplies across the country. Though the amounts are only trace, it all adds up. Installing a filter on your tap is a simple solution.
Also, drink out of glass or stainless steel containers instead of plastic bottles. Many types of plastic release hormonally active chemicals. Fortunately, glass bottles and containers are becoming more common again.
4. Move continually.
The human body is designed to move. Regular movement stimulates endorphins, natural killer cells, and stem cells. It balances hormones and stimulates glandular functions. If you want normal testosterone and growth hormone, don’t stop moving! It’s not an intense daily workout, however, that keeps your body energized nearly as much as moving consistently throughout the day. A good model to emulate is a shepherd — a person who walks throughout the day to keep up with the herd.
5. Sleep enough.
If you aren’t getting 7-8 hours of good sleep every night, your energy will be compromised — no amount of caffeine can compensate.
6. Destress regularly.
All it takes is a few minutes of deep breathing and focused concentration a couple of times a day to completely normalize the HPA axis and balance hormones that have been disrupted by stress. Some other de-stressing suggestions: take a nap, embrace your inner kid and play your favorite childhood game, have an impromptu dance party in your kitchen — whatever helps you get out of your head and let it all go for a little bit.
7. Take energizing adaptogens.
My favorites are rhodiola, eleuthero, epimedium, and tongkat ali. Traditionally, all four of these remarkable herbs have been revered for their revitalizing and age-defying properties, and for their power to enhance sexual energy. Each herb provides a slightly different spectrum of properties — when combined, synergy is generated that exceeds the benefits of any of the herbs independently.
These herbs are stimulating, but not in the same way as caffeine — they generally won’t leave you feeling jittery and drained, but rather bright and alert coupled with calm. The energizing effects start at the cellular level, and work in a number of ways:
- Adaptogens are potent antioxidants that protect cellular functions from free radical damage and accelerate repair of damaged structures. This helps speed recovery from strenuous or intense exercise.
- By balancing neurotransmitters in the brain as well as the HPA axis, energizing adaptogens provide a natural mood stabilizing effect — you have a strong sense of wellbeing because you truly feel well. This can improve mental function, boost confidence, and increase productivity.
- Energizing adaptogens help skeletal and cardiac muscle increase their uptake of oxygen, thereby enhancing physical performance. They also enhance blood flow and support optimal cardiovascular performance. Not surprisingly, rhodiola and eleuthero have long been used by people working at high altitudes to reduce risk of altitude sickness.
- All four adaptogens are anabolic — they stimulate protein synthesis, which builds muscle mass and protects bone density.
- Adaptogens optimize glucose metabolism and normalize insulin. While this won’t help you if you continue to overindulge in carbohydrates, it will help you return to normal when you decide to stop.
- These herbs support optimal immune function and increase the body’s resistance to infection. This helps balance your microbiome with favorable microbes and suppress pathogens. Along with regular low intensity exercise, adaptogenic herbs boost natural killer cells, the primary cells of the immune system that remove old cells and cells infected by microbes.
It’s important to recognize that energizing adaptogens do not contain hormones or substances that act like hormones directly. Instead, they promote normal glandular function in the body so that hormones like cortisol, thyroid, and testosterone also rebound to normal levels.
While energizing adaptogens won’t make you into something you’re not, they can help you reach your full energetic potential. Try them, along with my six other suggestions for boosting total vitality, and tell me what you think on Facebook. I’m betting that when you feel naturally energized — bright, mentally clear, and sexually vital — you’ll be ready to take on whatever life may throw at you!
1. Levine H et al. Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis. Human Reproduction Update, pp. 1–14, 2017
2. Travison TG et al. A population-level decline in serum testosterone levels in American men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Jan;92(1):196-202. Epub 2006 Oct 24.
3. de Almeida AJPO, Ribeiro TP, de Medeiros IA. Aging: Molecular Pathways and Implications on the Cardiovascular System. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2017;2017:7941563.
4. Elena Ricci et al. Coffee and caffeine intake and male infertility: a systematic review. Nutr J. 2017; 16: 37. Published online 2017 Jun 24.
6. Flegal K et al. Trends in Obesity Among Adults in the United States, 2005 to 2014. JAMA. 2016 Jun 7;315(21):2284-91.
7. Salas-Huetos A, Bulló M, Salas-Salvadó J. Dietary patterns, foods and nutrients in male fertility parameters and fecundability: a systematic review of observational studies. Hum Reprod Update. 2017 Jul 1;23(4):371-389.
8. Neuhouser M et al. Overweight, Obesity, and Postmenopausal Invasive Breast Cancer Risk: A Secondary Analysis of the Women’s Health Initiative Randomized Clinical Trials. JAMA Oncol. 2015 Aug;1(5):611-21.
9. Pernar C et al. The Epidemiology of Prostate Cancer. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2018 Jan 8. pii: a030361.
10. Rodgers K et al. Environmental chemicals and breast cancer: An updated review of epidemiological literature informed by biological mechanisms. Environ Res. 2018 Jan;160:152-182.
11. Gray J et al. State of the evidence 2017: an update on the connection between breast cancer and the environment. Environ Health. 2017 Sep 2;16(1):94.
12. Sanborn M et al. Non-cancer health effects of pesticides: systematic review and implications for family doctors. Can Fam Physician. 2007 Oct;53(10):1712-20.
13. Campion S et al. Male reprotoxicity and endocrine disruption. EXS. 2012;101:315-60.
14. Hamilton L, Julian A. The relationship between daily hassles and sexual function in men and women. J Sex Marital Ther. 2014;40(5):379-95.
15. Ambler D, Bieber E, Diamond M. Sexual Function in Elderly Women: A Review of Current Literature. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2012; 5(1): 16–27.
17. Gilbert J. Environmental contaminants and pesticides in animal feed and meat. Improving the Safety of Fresh Meat. A volume in Woodhead Publishing Series in Food Science, Technology and Nutrition, 2005, Pages 132–155