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How Stress Affects Your Libido

By Lucy Rose Clinic

June 22, 2022

When your libido, ability to enjoy sex, and sexual performance decline, it is extremely worrying. It creates a raft of emotions, as well as stress in a relationship, or if you aren’t in a relationship, worry about what is happening to your body.

This article endeavours to share a functional wellness approach to why stress affects our sex drive, and some nifty tips to get things back in balance, and get you feeling your vitality again!

This article covers the following:

  • Libido diminishing stress triggers
  • The HPA axis and the stress response
  • How stress imbalances your thyroid hormones
  • The pregnanolone steal
  • The HPA-axis
  • Tests you can run to assess your stress and libido
  • Natural Treatments To Boost Libido

The Fight and Flight response

Stress actions our nervous system and switches it between “fight or flight” mode, and “rest and digest” mode. 

A little bit of acute stress may very well increase your libido, depending on the environment and who you are around!

But long-term stress is where we see some unappealing health changes happen.

Spending too much time in fight/flight taxes the system and leads to chronic stress, and sympathetic nervous system dominance.

Common external causes of stress include:

  • Bullying
  • Major life changes
  • Work or school
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Financial problems
  • Being too busy
  • Children and family
  • Demanding social commitments

Common stress-inducing thinking:

  • Pessimism
  • Inability to accept uncertainty
  • Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations / perfectionism
  • All-or-nothing attitude

Common health causes of stress include:

  • Autoimmune disease
  • Digestive health issues – IBS
  • Pain of any kind
  • Sleep problems
  • Skin conditions, such as eczema
  • Heart disease
  • Weight problems
  • Reproductive issues

Our body is a marvelous thing, and its ability to adapt is really mind-blowing. When it comes to chronic stress, the brain actually changes to accommodate and becomes hard-wired to operate that way. What this means is that you can be chronically stressed and in sympathetic dominance – and not even know it.

Many people identify that they have been in sympathetic dominance after a long holiday or break away from their particular stress triggers.

But there are other ways you can assess your stress right now with a little honest evaluation.

Easy signs that you are in Fight/Flight;

  • Shallow breathing in the top third of the chest.
  • Flexed/tight jaw. Teeth grinding.
  • Tight muscles around shoulders and neck.
  • Racing heart rate.
  • Ruminating thinking about the past or future.
  • Overly sensitive to noise.
  • People tell you that you look or act stressed

The HPA Axis

The HPA axis regulates a number of body processes, including our stress response, digestion, immune system, mood and emotions, and sexuality.

The communication loop occurs between the Hypothalamus, Pituitary, and Adrenal glands.

When the HPA isn’t functioning properly, your body will go into a state of stress and anxiety that can be severely damaging not only to your sex drive but to your overall health.

90% of all chronic disease is caused by stress.

How stress imbalances your thyroid hormones

In the case of chronic stress, the body will actually use the building blocks that make sex hormones to meet the increased demands for higher cortisol production. This means decreasing interest in sex. (1)

Elevated cortisol will affect thyroid hormones, essentially turning them down to try and compensate for the flooding of steroid hormones in the body.

This occurs by free T4 being converted to reverse T3 in the presence of excess cortisol. A clever survival mechanism in the body, but when this is unrelenting, low T3 syndrome occurs – and will not be picked up by standard thyroid function tests in many cases. Instead, we see a rise in the inactive thyroid hormone called reverse T3. Read an article about reverse T3 here.

Low T3 symptoms are many and varied, with lower libido, impotence, and lower sex drive the big ones pertinent to this article. Learn more about low T3 here.

The Pregnenolone Steal

Pregnenolone is the precursor for all of the other adrenal hormones that the body manufactures. It’s the building block of aldosterone, progesterone, cortisol, DHEA, estrogen, and testosterone.

While there are many factors to your libido, one thing you must get tested to identify if your libido is low due to a pregnenolone steal is your sex hormone levels, and adrenal hormone profile – and we will highlight the other essential tests to get answers soon.

Ladies – Most women have no idea why their hormones are out of balance, or why they have period pain, acne, and mood swings. Stress throws out our hormones, coupled with excessive man-made hormones that affect our body, such as BPA, sodium lauryl sulfate, and parabens. Nourishing the body, clever supplementation, and better stress management significantly reduce, or fully alleviate PMS in as little as one menstrual cycle – but allow at least 3 cycles for long-term balance. No doubt your libido will feel better if your monthly cycle becomes healthier too. It’s a win-win!

Men – You are not exempt here either!

Androgens are hormones created by your adrenal glands and they can be converted to testosterone. Stress affects the production and conversion of many hormones that may be affecting your libido, mood, motivation, energy, and more.

Key symptoms of androgen deficiency for men and women:

Reduced sex drive

Less frequent morning erections

Body temp is cooler

More cramps, spasms, or twitches

Sleep apnea

Bone loss – osteoporosis

Plus all other andropause symptoms

Tests you can run to assess your stress and libido

Functional Pathology Tests key points along the steroid pathways to establish where hormones are in excess or deficiency. Understanding the status of adrenal hormones is essential to diagnosing HPA axis dysfunction.

Cortisol: This is the hormone that wakes us up each morning and keeps our diurnal rhythm in sync. Imbalances in cortisol lead to sleep issues, and fatigue, increase blood pressure, and regulate inflammation.

Our preferred test for cortisol is a 3-point salivary test, done at 3 key points of the day. Saliva testing shows free cortisol – this is unbound and available to your body. Serum (blood) tests show total cortisol – both bound and unbound. This is not as helpful when assessing hormone functionality.

Our Adrenal Profile also includes DHEA – vital as part of a workup.

Sex Hormones: you want to check for both deficiency and excess of Estradiol, Testosterone, and Progesterone. If you are close to the ‘normal’ range, consider that not normal as well.

Thyroid: standard medical testing of thyroid misses early and intermediate disease progression due to the overly generous reference ranges used to determine function. Hypothyroidism causes a big increase in Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG), and this binds to sex hormones making it unavailable to you. It may even disguise the truth of your sex hormone results – which is why we test it. Even a suboptimal thyroid will affect your libido.

A full Thyroid Blood Profile ideally includes TSH (the standard blood test to screen for thyroid dysfunction through medicare) as well as Free T3, Free T4, Anti-TPO, Anti-TG, Reverse T3, and SHBG.

Iodine: not usually talked about when we think ‘low libido’ but foundationally, iodine is the gatekeeper to the health of all our endocrine glands and sexual organs. Iodine deficiency leads to pathological changes that will eventually impact sex drive, such as fibroids, cysts, and enlargement of the prostate.

Iodine consumption in Japan is 25 times higher than in the US and has 29% fewer incidents of prostate cancer.

96% of Australians are iodine deficient, leading to a multitude of health problems. Iodine deficiency is the main cause of goiter (enlarged thyroid gland) and thyroid malfunction. Iodine deficiency can also cause oxidative stress and DNA alterations in the thyroid gland.

Care is needed when supplementing iodine, with correct testing the first step to determine need and dose. The gold standard of testing is a 24-hour urinary iodine load test. An iodine-literate practitioner will be able to prescribe a corrective dose that will detox toxic halogens and help bring your body to better health.

Natural Treatments To Boost Libido

If you have read the article, then you will know that there can be many different (and complicated) factors behind something so seemingly simple as lower sex drive! Using an aphrodisiac aid may not quite cut it if the real reason is chronic stress and an interrupted thyroid conversion story. Ideally, you should get the tests mentioned run and speak with an expert to get you on track with an accurate and individualised solution. But we have listed our favourite herbs to boost libido – give them a try! And if you still need help, book a call and we can help you get the right testing and functional medicine treatment.

Shatavari often is extensively used in treating both males and females for boosting libido. The word Shatavari translates to ‘100 spouses’, which gives us an inkling that it’s been used for libido for a LONG time! Plus it has a raft of other amazing health properties, including reducing stress via the HPA axis.

Korean ginseng is a traditional herb that has been used for improving sex drive in both men and women.

Tribulus – helps to enhance interest in sex, plus helps with PCOS, impotence, and male infertility.

Sleep – if you have any issue with sleep quality and quantity, then this is an area to work on.

Last but not least!

Stress Management.

Apart from the effects of stress, this article has highlighted, chronic stress leads us to unhealthy habits such as drinking, smoking, eating poor quality and low-nutrient foods, and more. All these things can impact our self-esteem and desirability.

Stress management is key – and not with a bottle of vino!
Daily meditation or mindfulness is one of the easiest ways to calm the stress response and allow the HPA axis to reclaim some balance. Aim for at least 15 minutes a day, or 3 sessions of 5 minutes a day.

If you don’t like the sound of that, try journaling and writing down your emotions, daily stresses, challenges, and reactions. This is a valuable exercise, especially if you find that you have trouble going to sleep due to a busy mind. The subconscious thoughts rise when we are relaxed – so by writing them down it can release the thoughts, and allow you to relax, reduce your stress levels, and improve your sleep.

Some other ideas to explore include:

Yoga

Exercise

Massage

Breathwork

Tai Chi

Keeping a gratitude diary

Aromatherapy

Look at your relationships

And of course, examine your relationship. Studies show that relationship stress and conflicts can be a stronger factor in low libido than other types of stress. (3)

If you feel that the reason for your changes in libido are due to your hormones, we can assist you. We will run thorough testing to find the reason behind your symptoms and then set you up on a corrective program that is both holistic and supported.

Plus we work with anyone as we are Telehealth. We would love to meet you on the phone and discuss how we can help!

References:

  1. nihms438698.pdf
  2. Pro-sexual and androgen enhancing effects of Tribulus terrestris L.: Fact or Fiction – PubMed (nih.gov)
  3. Exploring the Link Between Daily Relationship Quality, Sexual Desire, and Sexual Activity in Couples | SpringerLink

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