How to Boost Your Libido with Your Diet, Lifestyle Choices and Herbs
As a naturopathic doctor, a wide range of health conditions come through my door. One of the most sensitive issues for patients to broach is libido and sexual health. Your libido is also known as your sexual desire and a loss of sexual desire is a type of sexual dysfunction. However, depending on the cause, there may be natural solutions to help.
What is Sexual Dysfunction?
According to the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, sexual dysfunction is defined as a disturbance in the sexual response cycle or as pain associated with sexual intercourse. This may include conditions such as male erectile dysfunction, female sexual arousal dysfunction, sexual pain, or orgasm dysfunction. In my practice, the most common sexual health issues that patients present with include low libido, vaginal dryness; pain during sex and erectile dysfunction.
From dietary changes, lifestyle, stress and relationship factors; hormone imbalances and mood; over the years, I’ve come to realize that sexual dysfunction is a multi-layered and multi-factorial health condition. It takes a thorough assessment, treatment plan and may involve a referral to other allied health professionals in order to affectively overcome it.
Let’s examine what libido is, take a look at the dietary do’s and don’ts and talk about the supplements and herbs that may boost your libido while supporting your overall health.
Possible Causes of Low Libido
Libido is defined as the desire to engage in sex. The causes of low libido and sexual dysfunction can be psychological and physical. A low libido is the most common complaint from the many females in my practice; particularly around the time of perimenopause and post-menopause. However, it is prevalent amongst people of all sexual orientations and age demographics. I sat down the Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, a Toronto-based sexologist and producer of the Sex with Dr. Jess podcast and we chatted at great length about the causes and natural treatments to support a healthy libido. You can listen to that here.
What are the Causes of Low Libido?
Stress – Stress is your body’s reaction to the demands of your relationships, workplace conflicts, and to life in general. Stress is a normal phenomenon, however, when it becomes chronic, meaning there is no break between stressful occurrences, it can start to impact your physical and mental wellbeing including your libido.
Medications – Certain medications can have a negative impact on your libido. Hypertension medication, and some antidepressants, namely of the SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) class of medications, are notorious for reducing your libido. Low libido can also be a symptom of depression which means that some antidepressants may compound this issue. The birth control pill is another type of medication that may reduce libido. Check in your health care provider if you believe that your medication has reduced your sexual desire and if you have concerns.
Health conditions – Diabetes, heart disease, inactivity and metabolic syndrome (characterized by high blood pressure, central obesity, elevated blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels that increase your risk for stroke, heart disease and diabetes) can reduce your sexual desire.
Hormone imbalance – When your hormones are fluctuating and seem to be out of balance, it can also lead to a reduced desire for sexual intimacy. It’s common for perimenopausal and post-menopausal women to complain of having low libido due to the hormonal changes that the body experiences during this time. After menopause, which is the time that marks the end of ovulation and your monthly period, your estrogen levels are decreased, contributing to the thinning of your vaginal walls, vaginal dryness and a low sexual desire. This may also occur during perimenopause, the time leading up to menopause where hormones can fluctuate.
One approach to improving your libido is to ensure that there is enough physical and mental foreplay with your partner prior to sexual engagement. Often, it just takes more time to pique the interest and get the hormones and juices flowing. Herbs and dietary changes may also help.
Dietary Factors and Libido
Almost any food or nutrient that is good for your heart, brain and circulatory system, is good for your libido and this is because a good circulatory system is one factor that is important for a healthy libido. A poor diet on the other hand, can negatively affect your libido by disrupting your hormones, digestive system and impairing your circulatory system. Optimizing your nutrition for the right amounts and types of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) will set a healthy foundation.
With respect to nutritional intake, I commonly see two types of individuals in practice, people who are either consuming too much, or those who are eating too little. A diet that is excessive in all or one particular food or beverage, can increase your risk for chronic health conditions such as heart disease, obesity, hypertension and diabetes which in turn, can have deleterious effects on your libido. Therefore start by taking inventory of what you are eating with a nutrition journal and ask yourself, are you drinking too much alcohol and coffee? Are you waiting to eat for long periods of time followed by binging on too large of a meal? According to one study, alcohol abuse is the most common causes of erectile dysfunction in males. Although alcohol may help reduce anxiety, and lower social inhibitions - too much can interfere with your body’s sexual response.
On the other hand eating too little can increase your risk for macronutrient and micronutrient deficiencies. When you are not having enough of the key micronutrients such as vitamin B12 and iron, this can impact blood circulation and therefore blood flow to your pelvic floor and genitalia which will ultimately affect your libido.
Macronutrients such as carbohydrates, protein and fat are all important for balancing your mental health. When protein is consumed each meal, it helps you to stay full for longer while supplying the amino acids your body needs to make your sex hormones – estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
The Effect of Diet on Mood and Relationships
Consider the effect of your diet on your mood and relationships. Chemicals and food additives in your everyday foods can affect your brain chemistry as your gut and brain are connected via the vagus nerve. And when your mood is off, it can have a negative impact on your relationships.
Remember the nutrition journal I mentioned earlier? To determine if your food is affecting your mood keep a food / mood log. Log everything you eat and how you feel afterwards for 2 weeks. Do you notice a depressed mood, lethargy, a lack of focus or irritability after eating your favorite meal? And how does this change when your meals are organic, homemade or chemical-free? By simply cleaning up your diet, you may notice a positive difference in your mood and relationship interactions.
In ones study where children were split into 2 groups and provided with either a juice that contained food additives and preservative below or at the allowable levels, or an additive and food coloring-free juice, the parents of the children who were given the additive-laden juice noticed increased irritability, outbursts and an increased loss in temper above the group who were given the chemical-free juice. Yes, this study was in 3 year old children who are not the subject of this blog; however it demonstrates that the human brain responds to the foods that you consume.
It has also been established that additives such as benzoate, sulphite, salicylate and monosodium glutamate may have negative physical and mental effects in the general population in people who are particularly sensitive leading to symptoms such as an exacerbation in depression, asthma and fatigue.
Foods to Include for a Healthy Libido
Fruits and vegetables are important to include in your diet and may provide a libido boost and a decrease in erectile dysfunction. There’s also some research to back this.
One study has linked flavonoids, which are bioactive plant chemicals that are found in a variety of foods, to improving the function and strength of your blood vessels and to reducing your blood pressure. These potent plant chemicals also have anti-inflammatory effects in the body. A higher total intake of fruit in the study was associated with a 14% reduction in the risk of erectile dysfunction. Dark chocolate is another great source of flavonoids.
Polyunsaturated fats from foods such as avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil help to keep you satiated and support a healthy circulation in the arteries that supply blood to your pelvic floor muscles and genitalia.
And carbohydrates – please don’t forget to include them. Carbohydrates from root vegetables, legumes and whole grains helps to keep your brain and central nervous system’s voluntary and involuntary functions in smooth operation. The glucose derived from carbohydrates are the primary fuel for all the cells in your body. I joke to people that I deliberately avoid individuals on low carb diets because they are almost always hangry – as in, so hungry that they become cranky and snappy due to sub-optimally low blood sugar levels.
Another study found that people with metabolic syndrome who followed the Mediterranean diet had fewer issues with erectile dysfunction. The Mediterranean diet incorporates, lean meat and fish, olive oil, legumes, nuts and seeds, fruit and vegetables.
And lastly, seafood – I get asked about oysters all the time. Oysters are high in zinc and may help boost libido as zinc is an important mineral for synthesizing testosterone, one of the primary reproductive hormones.
Other foods high in zinc include red meat, pumpkin seeds and pine nuts. However, I often recommend taking zinc in supplement form when necessary on a case by case basis.
Herbs to Consider for your Libido
There are many herbs that have traditionally been used for sexual enhancement and mood stabilization. Win – win!
Fenugreek is a popular culinary spice in South Asian dishes and in Ayurvedic medicine. It’s backed by promising research that it can increase sexual arousal and orgasm. It’s thought to contain plant chemicals that serve as precursors to estrogen and testosterone.
Maca – This root vegetable from Peru can be found in supplement form. It’s a member of the broccoli and cabbage family and it is a good source of minerals and vitamins. It’s associated with increasing fertility and boosting sexual desire and stamina. In one study, taking a powdered Maca supplement was associated with a significant reduction in psychological symptoms including depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction compared to the placebo. More research is needed, however it seems that this herb is able to exert these effects without altering your hormone profile.
St. Johns Wort – St John’s Wort is a flowering plant native to Europe that I have used extensively in my practice on its own and in combination with other herbs to treat mild to moderate depression and the hot flashes related to perimenopause.
Other Treatments to Consider
Acupuncture and pelvic physiotherapy are other treatments I typically recommend. Acupuncture is great at reducing stress and boosting circulation to the pelvic area. I refer patients to pelvic physiotherapists who will assess your pelvic floor and recommend specific exercises and techniques that can make a world of a difference.
Sleep. Can it be a Missing Factor in Your Sexual Health?
A lack of sleep can negatively affect relationships and intimacy. Who wants to engage in intimacy and sex when you’re tired? Not me! It’s important to make sleep a priority for many health reasons. A lack of sleep or a poor quality sleep can be detrimental to your sexual wellbeing, your immune system, and circulatory system increasing your risk of sudden death from heart attack and increasing your risk of dementia.
Considerations for Improving Your Sleep
To improve your sleep, be sure not to head to bed on an empty stomach as this is a perfect recipe for a night of tossing and turning. However, at the same time, be sure not to go to bed with a stomach that is too full as this can also disturb your sleep. Aim to have your last meal approximately 3 hours before bedtime.
Supplement-wise, a powdered or liquid magnesium citrate is great for relaxing your muscles, calming your mood and helping you sleep. In practice, I recommend the magnesium glycinate form as it’s less likely to cause loose stools. Magnesium deficiency is thought to be the most common mineral deficiency in North America mainly due to industrial farming practices and the consumption of the standard North American diet that relies heavily on processed foods.
Alcohol and caffeine before bed can also disrupt your total sleep time and quality. And lastly, please don’t take your B complex, B12, iron supplements or multivitamins at night unless you were otherwise advised to do so. These are supplements that can boost your energy and interfere with your sleep.
Low Libido in Females Post-Partum
It’s normal to not feel totally up to having sex for months and sometimes years after having a baby. With a new addition to your family, the relationship with your partner will definitely change as you navigate your new life and roles; your hormones will be fluctuating and there will be a lot on your mind – especially as a first time mom. I typically recommend acupuncture, omega – 3 fatty acids, dietary support and ensuring that mom is getting enough protein throughout the day.
I encourage moms who are nursing to continue taking a prenatal vitamin and to ensure that iron levels are optimal. Low iron can interfere with your energy levels, mood and libido. A thyroid issue may also interfere with your libido, therefore it may be helpful to see your doctor within 6 months of giving birth to ensure your lab parameters have balanced out after delivering your baby.
The Bottom Line
When someone comes into my office presenting with low libido as a primary complaint, it’s important for me to get the complete picture. Nutrition and lifestyle changes with the addition of herbs, supplements and other therapies such as acupuncture can provide great support. Sexual dysfunction can negatively affect your quality of life. However, from my perspective, it’s often a sign that other aspects of your health may need equal attention.
~Dr. Olivia Rose ND
Have a question? Leave a comment or ask me directly by emailing AskUs@vitarock.com