Understanding the biological factors that play into your sex drive can make the whole concept feel less confusing. Here, an expert explains the four main hormones that influence your libido, and when you should be concerned.
Despite how big a role our sex drive can play in our day-to-day lives, it’s one of those topics very few of us feel comfortable talking about.
Society has come a long way when it comes to discussing what goes on inside the bedroom, but when it comes to how much sex we’re actually having, we’re less likely to talk. It’s probably why so many of us are worried that we’re not ‘getting enough’.
But the insecurity many of us feel about our libido isn’t the only reason why this lack of conversation is such a problem. As well as having an emotional impact, it also means many of us have little understanding of what a low, normal or high sex drive looks like – let alone the important biological factors that influence our levels of desire throughout our lives.
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Indeed, while lifestyle factors – including relationship happiness – can certainly have an impact on your sex drive, it’s your hormones that have the biggest influence.
And while you can’t control the way your hormone levels change throughout your life, knowing what’s going on inside your body can help you to be more compassionate towards yourself and the sex drive you have.
How your hormones influence your libido (and the main ones to look out for)
While the decision to have sex is a conscious one we make in the moment, the chemicals inside our bodies influence the level of desire we feel in the lead-up to and during sex. There are four key hormones that play a role in this process – each of which is influenced by different external factors.
One of the most influential hormones when it comes to libido is the stress hormone cortisol. The psychological impact of stress can certainly play a role in whether or not we want sex – feeling frazzled and overwhelmed can make it hard to be in the moment – but it’s the impact cortisol can have on other hormones in the body that makes it so powerful.
“While your cortisol levels usually drop down after the stressful situation that triggered the rise has dissipated, your body will keep producing cortisol if you are stressed a lot,” explains, Dr Manpreet Bains, a GP and head of clinical operations at the health testing company Thriva.
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“This stops your body making enough other hormones, such as oestrogen, that are important for your sex drive because your body prioritises making cortisol over other vital hormones.”
As well as stopping other vital hormones from being produced, chronic stress can also cause your body to use up sex hormones to make more cortisol, decreasing libido even further in the process.
Oestrogen is most commonly known for its role in developing and maintaining the female reproductive system, for example, by regulating periods. But our oestrogen levels can impact libido, too.
“Low oestrogen levels can reduce your sex drive,” Dr Bains explains. “Your levels can be low at any point in your life, but oestrogen naturally dips as you age and approach the menopause.”
It’s for this reason that many women experience a decreased sex drive as they approach and pass through the menopause stage – although some women still retain their libido despite this.
Testosterone is typically known as a male hormone, but it plays an important role in the female body, from promoting bone health to maintaining our sex drive.
“Testosterone is actually essential for women,” Dr Bains explains. “As you age, testosterone levels can drop, which can affect your sex drive.”
High testosterone levels – which are typically experienced by women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – can also lead to a low libido alongside a number of other symptoms.
Having an under or overactive thyroid can also take its toll on your sex drive due to the important hormones that are produced in this area of the body.
“Your thyroid gland produces hormones that control metabolism [influencing things such as energy and mood], so if your thyroid isn’t working properly, it can affect your sex drive,” Dr Bains says.
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“If you think your thyroid gland might be the issue, you can test your thyroid function with a blood test.
“There are lots of treatment options available if anything is out of balance.”
When should you worry about your sex drive?
There isn’t really such a thing as a ‘normal’ sex drive – it’s kind of down to what’s normal to you. As such, the only reason why you should worry about your sex drive is if you’ve noticed a drastic difference which is having an impact on your life, Dr Bains says.
You might also consider seeking help if you aren’t happy with your sex drive or if it’s affecting your relationship – but it’s entirely up to you.
For more information on dealing with a low sex drive – including other factors that can influence libido and what help is available – you can visit the NHS website.
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