Libido


Libido, otherwise known as your sexual 'drive' or 'desire' varies from woman to woman and there is no right or wrong level. It is normal for desire to fluctuate perhaps due to changes in hormone levels, medication, your health, lifestyle changes and what's happening in your relationship and in your life. If your libido level worries you there are a number of things you can do to improve desire. Finding a solution to the problem involves determining what seems to affect your libido and trying strategies to deal with this.

libido

What is libido?

Libido is the sexual instinct or erotic desire and pleasure. Your libido is otherwise known your 'sex drive'. Libido varies from woman to woman and can be influenced by a range of different factors.

Loss or reduction of libido can be experienced at any age and may result in:

  • reduced desire to have sex
  • sexual experiences that are no longer satisfying or pleasurable

Many women will experience low libido at some time in their lives. This may be over a long period of time or short-term such as after the birth of a baby, during a stressful life period or when a relationship is rocky.

Low libido can become an issue in relationships when one partner wants sex more often than the other. This is called 'desire discrepancy' and can cause conflict and unhappiness.

What affects your libido?

It's normal for desire to fluctuate and there may be many reasons for this.

Influence Impact on libido
Changes in hormone levels An increase in prolactin stimulates milk production after childbirth. This increase can result in reduced libido when breastfeeding.
A reduction in the level of the female sex hormone oestrogen occurs with menopause.

The reduction can:

  • cause symptoms that reduce your libido such as:
    • hot flushes
    • vaginal dryness
    • loss of vaginal elasticity
    • discomfort during intercourse
  • influence your perception of touch
  • decrease muscle tone and elasticity of the pelvic floor
A reduction in the level of the female hormone testosterone occurs as women age.

For some women this causes symptoms such as:

  • loss of libido
  • lessened sexual responsiveness
  • a reduced sense of wellbeing
  • loss of energy
Menopause Natural, surgical, induced, premature and early  menopause all have symptoms caused by changes in hormone levels.
  • Hot flushes and night sweats are symptoms of menopause that can impact sleep making you tired and lethargic and uninterested in sex
  • Weight gain and body shape changes can make some women self-conscious about their body so they feel less like sex
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) PMS is a cluster of symptoms caused by changes in hormone levels.

Symptoms of PMS can make women feel less feel like sex including:

  • bloating
  • tiredness
  • breast tenderness
  • headaches
  • mood swings
Medication

Medications such as:

  • antidepressants
  • some oral contraceptive pills

affect hormone levels

The reduced hormone levels can decrease libido or your desire for sex.
Lifestyle Rest, relaxation, recreation and suitable exercise. Can all have positive effects on your libido.
Psychological influences
  • Stress
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Poor body image
  • Feelings of resentment, shame or guilt about sex
  • Past experiences of sex including abuse and trauma  
Can each affect libido by making you feel less confident, more negative and hesitant about having sex.
Your relationship
  • End of the 'honeymoon' period of the relationship
  • Being time poor or feeling too tired/fatigued for sex
  • Poor sexual compatibility or partner sexual problems
  • Experiencing problems other than sexual such as financial issues
Relationships can have the biggest influences on libido. If your relationship is unhappy and/or the sex you are having is disappointing, it is difficult to feel sexually inclined towards your partner and your willingness to engage in sex will be reduced.
Medical conditions

Medical conditions such as:

  • endometriosis
  • pelvic inflammatory disease
  • a prolapse
  • haemorrhoids
  • anaemia
  • kidney failure
  • infections (such as thrush or urinary tract)
  • hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland)
  • chronic pain
These conditions can lead to painful sex (dyspareunia) or involuntary spasms of the pelvic floor muscles ('vaginismus') that reduce the desire for sex.

Managing & treating low libido

Don't be concerned about when or how often others have sex. There is no 'normal' when it comes to the frequency of sex. What's important is whether you and your partner are happy with your level of sexual activity. 

If your libido level worries you or is very different from your partner's and this causes you distress, there are a number of things you can do to improve the situation. Finding a solution to the problem involves determining what seems to affect your libido and then trying strategies to deal with this. The most important thing to remember is that just because one person in the relationship has a lower level of libido than the other, this doesn't mean there is something wrong with either person. It is when the difference in libido is causing problems that you may need to seek help to manage the issue. It does not mean that one person is good or bad, but just that you are different.

While you should never feel you have to have sex with someone you are not attracted to or don't like, nor do you have to have sex that doesn't please you, the following strategies may help you:

Health
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle by being physically active, eating a healthy diet, reducing your alcohol intake
  • Find ways to reduce stress and take time out to relax regularly
Opportunity
  • Create goodwill and some intimacy between you and your partner, by talking, listening and touching and holding each other, so you are more likely to feel sexual towards each other
  • Don't wait for sex to happen spontaneously – allocate time for sex
  • Create a physical environment for sensuality and intimacy
Communication
  • Let your partner know what makes you feel loved and encourage them to do these things and do the same for them in return
  • Work with your partner as a team to deal with libido issues – if there is desire discrepancy try to find a compromise agreeable to both of you
  • Communicate what works best for you during sex – your partner may not know what you like
Options

If you have low desire but still enjoy sex, try:

  • 'decision-driven' sex rather than waiting to have 'desire-driven' sex – you make some decisions by saying to yourself: "Sex is good for our relationship, so even though I can't be bothered, I will suggest making love tonight"
  • sex for affection or intimacy or because sex is good for your relationship or because you enjoy sex
  • manual or oral stimulation rather than intercourse

Realise that sex is not only penetrative intercourse but includes touching, kissing, holding, trusting and/or oral stimulation. Talk about this with your partner. Take it in turns to make love to the other with no expectations.

Exploration
  • Rather than automatically saying no to sex when the opportunity arises, ask yourself "why not?" – if no good reason presents itself, give sex a try
  • Optimise the quality of sex you are having with your partner – the better the sex, the more likely you are to want it
  • Explore your own sexuality – get to know your sexual anatomy, learn how things work and what gives you pleasure
  • Where do you like to be touched, what sort of pressure, can you bring yourself to orgasm? If you don't know, how can your partner know?
  • Nothing gives most men more pleasure than seeing their partner enjoy sex
  • When together, focus on your own pleasure – stay present and enjoy

Chronic or long-term, low libido can create differences in sexual desire in couples. Sometimes, your partner can fear hurting you (physically and emotionally) and this starts a negative cycle in your sexual relationship.

Seek advice

It is better for your relationship and future sexual experiences to discuss your feelings of low libido. You may want to seek advice from your doctor, with your partner if appropriate. Some of the following may help:

  • Treatment for any underlying illness or medical condition
  • Lifestyle changes and stress management
  • Herbal remedies (see an accredited naturopath)
  • Hormone therapy (if appropriate)
  • Medication changes
  • Antidepressants (certain antidepressants may be more suitable, others can reduce libido)
  • Stress management
  • Couples counselling
  • Counselling with a therapist who specialised in sexual concerns.

Testosterone therapy

Whether testosterone can help women with loss of libido continues to be debated. Testosterone treatment in women aims to replace the reduced testosterone production by the ovaries that occurs as you age and after menopause. 

Some studies have shown women who experience a loss of sexual interest at menopause may benefit from testosterone therapy when it is used in high doses[1]. Due to potential complications of testosterone therapy, using high doses may not be the right thing to do however.

While some women seeking help from health professionals because they are concerned about their decreased sexual function do have low testosterone levels, researchers have concluded that the relationship between testosterone and libido is likely to be complex and you need to take into account age, mood, general wellbeing, sexual function and the risks of testosterone therapy also[2].

What are the risks of testosterone therapy?

This therapy is an area of ongoing research to better identify a safe and effective dose of testosterone for women.

Currently no form of testosterone therapy for women is officially approved in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). The TGA is a government body that assesses and monitors activities to ensure therapeutic goods available in Australia are of an acceptable standard.

Testosterone treatment in women has been associated with an increased risk of developing:

  • oily skin
  • acne
  • excess facial and body hair growth
  • scalp hair loss
  • irritability
  • aggression

Serious potential side effects include lowering of the voice and enlargement of the clitoris, both of which are irreversible.

One study of testosterone only treatment in postmenopausal women reported an increased risk of breast cancer compared to women who had received a placebo, or dummy treatment.

If you are considering testosterone therapy, talk to your doctor to gain a clear understanding of what is currently known about this therapy. It is essential for women undergoing testosterone treatment to be supervised by doctors who are experts in this area. And if you are of childbearing age and considering testosterone use, use reliable contraception, as serious adverse effects on a developing foetus may result if you become whilst using testosterone treatment.

Herbal remedies for low libido

Many cultures use herbs that traditionally have had a reputation for increasing libido. It's not clear whether these herbs actually stimulate a sexual urge or act as a placebo. The mind is a powerful sexual organ! For more information on libido and natural therapies visit our webpages

There are many factors that can influence a woman's libido and the general advice is to address the lifestyle, nutrition and relationship factors that may be playing a role in low libido and not just rely upon medications.

References

  1. Davis SR, Moreau M et al. Testosterone for low libido in postmenopausal women not taking estrogen: A phase III research study of female sexual dysfunction in women on testosterone patches without estrogen (APHRODITE). Obstetrical Gynacological Survey 02/2009;64(3):170-172.

  2. Daviosn SL & Davis SR. Androgenic hormones and aging - the link with female sexu function. Hormone Behaviour. 2011;59(5):745-53.

Last updated 24 July 2017 — Last reviewed 02 December 2013

** Currently under review **

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at December 2013.

Subscribe To our newsletters