How Stress Affects Your Sexual Health

October 12, 2020

How Stress Affects Your Sexual Health

In this article:

  • What is the connection between stress and sex?
  • How stress affects your sex life
  • The different impact stress has on men and women
  • Ways to improve your sex life
  • Natural methods to increase your libido
  • When to seek professional help for your sexual health

The stress-sex connection

Let’s talk about sex. It's a natural part of life for most people. Many times people feel the need to have sex for a sort of sexual “release” or to take their minds off of stresses in their daily life. For others, it’s more about a deeper emotional connection or love. From a biological standpoint, when you have sex, your body releases endorphins and other hormones that elevate your mood. Sex can also be a great exercise, which itself is an effective stress reliever. But stress can also keep us from "getting in the mood" for sex or worse, not being able to perform sexually when we want to.

Most of the time, sex and stress do not mix. You simply cannot have a head full of 120 thoughts and worries while also having great sex. Studies have shown that the stress hormones released by the body are inversely linked to sex drive. The more stressed out we are, the more stress hormones our body releases, and therefore, the more likely we are to have a lower sex drive. A low sex drive isn’t the only effect stress can have on the body; as you may have experienced yourself, stress can also lead to a slew of physical symptoms including fatigue, headaches, upset stomach, and insomnia.

Why stress is affecting your sex life

Human beings have two nervous systems: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.

When humans experience trauma or stress, the sympathetic nervous system (a “branch” off of the peripheral nervous system) kicks into action; your heart rate increases, your palms get sweaty, and you experience inner discomfort. Once you have dealt with whatever was causing you to stress, your parasympathetic nervous system then relieves the sympathetic nervous system. When your sympathetic nervous system has been triggered for a long period of time, your body will actually begin to produce more cortisol AKA “the stress hormone.” The building blocks used in this process are the very same building blocks used to produce the male sex hormone testosterone. Therefore, for most people with long-lasting stress symptoms, testosterone production is reduced. Our libido or sex drive goes hand in hand with our nervous system, if your sympathetic nervous system is active, it could cause sexual problems.

Testosterone is the sex hormone with the most impact on your sex drive for both men and women. Endorphins start a chain reaction that stimulates testosterone production or the lack thereof. Endorphins block pain during stress, but they also block the release of LHRH (luteinizing hormone aka releasing hormone). A decrease in LHRH then causes a drop in LH (luteinizing hormone), a hormone important in testosterone production. At the same time, FSH, which stimulates sperm formation, also declines. The mind serves as the underlying power behind all these reactions and reconditioning the brain is the key element in reversing it.

Chronic stress utilizes sex hormones to meet the increased demands for higher cortisol production, thus decreasing your interest in sex.

How does stress affect a man/woman sexually

Women juggle all kinds of daily life demands throughout their lives. From raising a family to maintaining their professional career, finances, and relationships, keeping up with all these things can be stressful on a regular basis. Stress may reduce sexual desire — especially when women are simultaneously caring for young children, feeling depressed, experiencing relationship difficulties, or dealing with work problems.

Stress can also have a significant impact on a woman’s reproductive plans; it can impact a woman’s ability to conceive, the health of her pregnancy, and her postpartum adjustment. Oftentimes during postpartum, women have low self-esteem due to the many changes that are happening to their bodies, lives, and hormones. Excess stress also increases the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety during this time.   Depression is the leading complication of pregnancy and postpartum adjustment. Maternal stress can also negatively impact fetal and ongoing childhood development and disrupt bonding with the baby in the weeks and months following delivery.

Men’s responses and causes of stress are very different from women. For millions of men, erectile dysfunction is nothing more than a stress response that triggers a classic mind-body phenomenon. Sexual activity is under the control of the autonomic or involuntary nervous system, which is why we have no conscious control over it. Whenever a man becomes aroused, nerve impulses cause blood vessels in the penis to dilate, allowing a steady flow of blood pressure into the spongy tissue. At the same time, a circular muscle called a sphincter constricts to prevent blood from flowing back. During a bout of stress, blood vessels don’t dilate fully and the sphincter fails to constrict, both contributing to erectile dysfunction. Negative events create a spontaneous stress response that intensifies the more ingrained it becomes. And because physiological actions such as erection are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, the conditioning process is more easily developed and much harder to break.

How to improve your sex drive

Lead a healthy lifestyle: It's hard to feel good about having sex if you don't feel good about yourself. Practicing self-care means eating a healthy diet, exercising, getting good sleep, practicing stress management techniques, pampering yourself, and enjoying time for self-reflection. It's always best to try and minimize or quit bad habits like smoking and drinking excessive alcohol (which could dampen your sexual function). All of these things are detrimental to your holistic well-being in the long-term.

Self-Care: Taking time for self-care means you're taking time to build confidence and love your body, helping you to feel more energetic, sexy, and in control of your body. Remember sex is for you too, not just your partner.

Communication: Stress and low libido can affect your relationship, so it's important to talk about it whenever it arises. When talking to your partner about low libido, take extra care to avoid directing blame at yourself or your partner.

The best approach is one that neither assigns low libido as their issue or your issue but rather a problem you both will overcome together. This will require open and honest communication about the possible causes of your stress as well as the physical and emotional symptoms of low libido. You never know, a conversation could lead to more intimacy and better sex with your partner.

Increase your libido

There are a variety of things you can do in your everyday life that can help to boost your libido and enhance your sex life. Certain foods including herbs have been shown to better sexual health in a handful of studies.

People often assume that in order to increase libido you must increase testosterone. While testosterone level does play a role in libido, it is not the only factor. Take for instance the herb maca (Lepidium meyenii), which can affect your libido yet have no effect on testosterone levels. Vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, vitamin D, and zinc can help support healthy testosterone levels, but do not necessarily boost them if intake is already sufficient.

Maca and cocoa extract are two of the more well-researched libido-enhancing supplements. Both require at least a week of supplementation to provide benefits. Maca specifically may not reach full potency until two months of consistent supplementation. Research into Maca has also shown promise for postmenopausal women, an often-overlooked population when it comes to libido enhancement. The effects of cocoa extracts on libido are more indirect. Low nitric oxide (NO) levels can lead to poor circulation, which can contribute to erectile dysfunction. Flavonoids in cocoa can help bolster NO levels, improving blood flow and possibly alleviating erectile dysfunction. Rose essential oil, used in aromatherapy, and chocolate may both have mild relaxing properties, notably for women. These effects might contribute to libido enhancement indirectly, via stress reduction.

Exercising is a great way to keep stress at bay and boost your self-esteem which, in turn, can boost your libido. If you feel like you don't get enough alone time with your partner, consider working out as a couple. The good news is that if you’re already taking a collagen supplement to boost your energy levels and build muscle mass at the gym, collagen can also help you in the bedroom. Supplementing with collagen helps to restore firmness to the muscle tissues in both the female and male sex organs, thus fighting off erectile dysfunction and painful sex due to weakened vaginal walls.

When to seek help

When your sexuality is giving you a hard time, you need to identify and address the underlying problem. It’s totally normal for sex drives to fluctuate throughout your life, whether on a day-to-day or year-to-year basis. There’s absolutely nothing to feel ashamed of and a lot of people go through this. If a low sex drive is unusual for you, is persistent, and is affecting your quality of life, it’s best to seek help from a mental health professional or even a sex therapist. Sex therapy is a specialized type of talk therapy that focuses on sexual issues. Through sex therapy, which is offered in both individual and joint partner sessions, you can learn to express your concerns clearly and better understand your and your partner's sexual needs. You might also want to see a general doctor to assess the physical symptoms you’re experiencing and ensure medical conditions aren’t contributing to your low libido like depression or anxiety.

If you’re really feeling stuck in your ability to enjoy sex, find time for sex, or just feel connected during sexual activity, then it can be just a great opportunity to talk about it with a mental health professional.

Chances are if stress is affecting your sex life, it’s probably affecting other aspects too. Taking control of your life and working towards making positive changes to reduce your stress levels will benefit your day-to-day and mental health as a whole — not just enhance your sex life — although, that’s an absolutely delightful bonus.

Summary Points

  • Science shows how our stress hormones are inversely linked to sex drive
  • Testosterone is the sex hormone with the most impact on your sex drive for both men and women
  • Chronic stress utilizes sex hormones to meet the increased demands for higher cortisol production, thus decreasing your interest in sex
  • Maternal stress can also negatively impact fetal and ongoing childhood development
  • Collagen helps to restore firmness to the muscle tissues in both the female and male sex organs

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