The main sex hormones are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Their normal balance leads to a healthy sex drive both in men and women.
Another word for sex drive, libido, describes a person’s desire for sexual activity – there is no numeric measurement for libido, but it’s usually referred to as being low or high. There are many things that can affect sex drive from biological reasons to social or psychological factors. Let’s look at the main sex hormones, how they impact libido, the difference in male and female sex hormones, and how libido changes throughout the menstrual cycle.
The main sex hormones are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. While we associate progesterone and estrogen with the menstrual cycle, and testosterone with sperm production, all three of these hormones are present to some extent in both male and female bodies.
Female sex drive
It’s important to note that there is no ‘normal’ when it comes to sex drive, everyone is different and our bodies behave in different ways – and our sex drives are no exception! Increased libido can be caused by a number of things. In women, there are points in the menstrual cycle when sex drive is typically considered to be higher. Usually, in the days approaching ovulation when they are most fertile, their sex drive is also highest.
A dip in estrogen and an increased level of progesterone, towards the end of the cycle, can cause a slump in sex drive. Many women report having an increased libido during menstruation, while the chances of getting pregnant on your period are very low, the increase in sex drive is caused by a drop in the levels of progesterone.
Women on hormonal birth control are unlikely to experience the same hormonal fluctuations in their libido as synthetic hormones in birth control work to prevent ovulation. While some women may not notice any changes to their sex drive while taking the pill, low libido is often reported as an unwanted side effect of hormonal birth control.
Typically, the sex drive is highest at points in the cycle when progesterone is low and estrogen levels are high. Progesterone can make women feel bloated, sluggish, and is associated with the undesirable symptoms of PMS. Estrogen, on the other hand, can be energizing, gives a healthy glow to the skin, and boosts libido.
As well as affecting the sex drive, estrogen has a number of functions in the female body including:
- assisting in breast growth and development;
- growing of pubic and underarm hair;
- regulating stages of the menstrual cycle;
- protecting bone health;
- controlling cholesterol;
- affecting the brain, heart, and other tissue;
- changing mood and energy levels.
Testosterone is also present in small amounts in the female body, although not directly linked to sex drive, it has a key role in repairing and maintaining reproductive tissues and bone mass.
Male sex drive
While female sex drive fluctuates over a longer period of time, male sex drive tends to fluctuate more frequently, with testosterone levels rising and falling throughout the day. Sex drive is often highest for males in the morning when testosterone levels are greatest – this is why men often wake with an erection, a physical sign of libido being high. Testosterone levels typically decrease throughout the day and are lowest late at night.
As well as fluctuating in a 24-hour period, testosterone levels also typically decrease throughout a man’s lifetime. Testosterone levels are usually at their highest levels during teenage years and start to decline after this point. Mirroring this dip in testosterone, the sex drive also tends to decline as men get older.
As well as affecting male libido, testosterone also helps regulate:
- sperm production;
- development of sex organs;
- hair growth;
- muscle development and bone mass;
- when the voice breaks in puberty;
- the production of red blood cells.
Estradiol, a form of estrogen is also present in the male body and is linked to libido, erectile function, and sperm production. Progesterone also plays a key role in regulating estrogen and is also required to make testosterone.
Causes of low sex drive
There are so many factors that can impact libido, these can be physical, psychological, or caused by external factors or lifestyle. Sex drive typically decreases after menopause in women, but also generally declines in men as they age as well.
Impacting libido, increased stress, anxiety, or mental health problems can decrease the desire for sex. Unfortunately, many medications used to treat anxiety or depression can also cause a slump in sex drive. Drug use, smoking, and alcohol also affect sex drive negatively.
We are all prone to notice changes in our sex drive throughout our lifetimes. Generally, periods, when you have a low libido, shouldn’t be a cause for concern, but if you notice a change in your sex drive or find a lack of libido is impacting your well-being you should speak to a doctor. In some cases, therapy can be used to combat stress, which in turn can combat low libido or erectile dysfunction in men.
While it might seem like it is everywhere, from the saucy song lyrics playing on the radio to the sexed-up yogurt commercials on TV, recent studies have shown that our interest in actually having sex is declining over time. Take research into this topic with a pinch of salt though, as societal pressures and social norms mean those asked about sex might not always be entirely truthful, contributing further to false perceptions of what a healthy desire for sex might be.
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