Not in the mood? Hey, we’ve all been there. Sometimes you really do have a headache, right? But if you’re consistently feeling like you’re not in the mood – that you’re struggling with low libido – there are probably reasons behind that. Some of them could be psychological or emotional, but there’s also a chance that what you’re experiencing has a physical root, or a combination of mental and physical factors. And no, we’re not just talking about the old headache problem, or even things like weight gain. We’re talking about something that might surprise you: your gut health. Yes, your gut! So what does your gut health have to do with your libido, and are there things you can try to get your gut health back on track and put the zing back into your thing?
Your Low Libido
Here we are, at the start of a new year, in the dead of winter, and you might not be feeling super sexy. Maybe you feel like you gained a bit of weight over the holidays, maybe work is stressing you out, or maybe you’re even struggling with seasonal depression. All of that can take a toll on your sex drive.
But if your low libido isn’t so, well, fleeting and seasonal, you’ll probably want to evaluate what’s going on. After all, if you’re generally a fan of sex, you’ll want to keep it and all of its benefits in your life! First of all, experts recommend you evaluate the emotional side of things in your life, asking yourself things like: Are you happy with your partner, or are there issues that need to be addressed? Are you feeling good about yourself, or has your self-image taken a hit lately? And be honest!
After all, for many people, sex starts in the brain (OK, not completely, but still). According to board-certified integrative physician and licensed psychotherapist, Edison de Mello, MD, Ph.D., “Libido and sexual arousal in women is, for the most part, grounded on intimacy involving the interaction of several components, including physical trust, emotional well-being, previous experiences, self-esteem, physical attraction, lifestyle, and her current relationship.”
But all of that psychological stuff is not the whole story. Sure, we talk about men’s physical issues with libido and sexual function, but the physical side of things can be an issue for women, too. And if your instinct after questioning yourself about your emotional life is that there’s something else going on, listen to it. That something else, researchers are finding, might have to do with your gut health.
Gut Health and Libido
It seems like talk about our gut health is everywhere these days. And there’s a good reason for that! We’re finding out more about the impact of gut health on all aspects of our overall health.
Researchers have been uncovering many ways in which the gut, particularly the population of bacteria living in your intestines and bowel called the gut microbiome, can affect our health and behavior. And you know what? Sex is no different! Turns out your gut has a pretty big role to play in everything from the hormones of sexual behavior to the actual matter of attraction to the act itself. The following are some of the main reasons your gut affects your sex drive:
1. GI issues are a bummer
Again according to de Mello, “I often see low libido as a symptom stemming from an imbalance of the gut flora (dysbiosis), even though most of us do not necessarily think of our intestines when we think about sexual arousal. But, the gastrointestinal tract, aka our gut system, plays a major physical factor that has many unexpected effects on our ability to respond and perform sexually.”
Why is that? Your first instinct is probably to think GI problems, like gas, diarrhea, nausea, or bloating can really kill the mood. And you’re not wrong (although that’s not the whole story). Those things, and even the fear of experiencing them while with your partner, are actually proven to cause not only painful sex, but also performance anxiety, and eventually, low libido.
For example, many IBS sufferers report experiencing performance anxiety due to the fear that they’ll have an IBS episode in the middle of intimate activities. And, in this case, instead of producing serotonin (a happy hormone), your body will feel stressed, secreting cortisol (a stress hormone).
In fact, in one study in which 30 women were tested for arousal levels in the presence of elevated cortisol found: “Women who show an increase in cortisol in response to sexual stimuli in the laboratory have lower levels of functioning in certain areas of their sexual life compared with women who show a decrease in cortisol. Stress related to sexual performance may interfere with sexual arousal.”
2. Your gut makes some good stuff
OK, but as we’ve hinted at, the relationship between your gut and your sex drive is not just about the fear of an embarrassing bodily function ruining date night. There’s something more complicated going on. Your sexual health is actually connected to your gut because of the fact that the neurotransmitter serotonin plays a big role in your mental health.
What does serotonin have to do with your gut? Well, serotonin doesn’t just play a role in our moods, it also helps regulate bowel movements and feelings of nausea. And it turns out that the vast majority of serotonin is produced by gut bacteria. “It turns out that only some serotonin is produced in the brain — about 80 to 90% of it is actually produced in the gut,” Dr. Edward Catalano told HuffPost in 2017. In fact, millions of neurons line your GI tract and send signals to your brain to control emotional responses.
And consider this: too much serotonin actually inhibits sex drive, as anyone who takes SSRIs for depression could probably tell you. So a gut that’s producing varying levels of serotonin could end up causing unexplained mood and libido changes, and doing funky things to your sex drive. So, if your gut isn’t healthy, your body and brain probably won’t be able to respond to those sexy moments as they normally would.
3. A healthy gut is a sexy gut
Here’s where things get a little crazy. The health of your gut can actually have an impact on your, shall we say, sexiness? Apparently, according to research by microbiologist Susan Erdman, the microbiome of our gut might actually play a big part in that oh-so-important part of sex: attraction. Huh? Well, she told The New York Times that microbes in our guts can affect our skin, hair, and even our oxytocin levels, and can give us (or take away) what she calls “the glow of health” that helps make us sexually attractive to others. In other words, it sounds like you might want to stock up on some probiotic yogurt before your next date.
And not only can your gut’s microbiome play a part in your sex appeal, but it can also play a part in how attracted you are to sexual partners. Some scientists believe that there are such things as “compatible” gut microbe populations among couples, or people who are attracted to each other. In other words, if someone’s microbial levels match yours, you’re more likely to be attracted to one another. Not a totally proven theory, but it still suggests that there’s a whole lot going on it that gut that could be affecting how you feel about sex.
Getting Your Gut’s Sexy Back
Wow, that’s a whole lot of gut impacting a whole lot of sex drive. So if you think this might be something worth exploring when it comes to ramping up a flagging libido, what can you do? Well, there are a few things you can try to get your gut’s microbiome healthier – and sexier:
- Check your diet – Eating lots of sugar and processed foods is bad for your gut, so consider cutting down on those types of foods and adding in more fresh, non-starchy fruits and veggies, as well as some fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, and kombucha.
- Get moving – Research has found that, among the many benefits of exercise for the body, it can also increase the “flow rate” through the intestines, which can influence your metabolism and immune function, ultimately affecting the microbiota in your gut for the better.
- Use antibiotics sparingly – Have an infection? Then by all means, take antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor. Have a cold? Skip them; they won’t help, and they’ll negatively affect your gut’s microbiome. Since antibiotics can’t tell the difference between good bacteria and bad bacteria.
And if you’re experiencing GI issues that directly affect your sex life, in addition to talking to your doctor, consider going on dates that don’t involve eating!
Your gut’s microbiome is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re about to get busy, right? But it turns out it might be having more of an effect on your sex life than you could have imagined. If you’ve got an unhealthy gut, you might just have an unhealthy sex life, as well. So eat right, get some exercise, talk to your doctor, and get yourself (and your gut) back on the sexy track!
Co-written by Joanna Bowling