Is your lifestyle impacting your sex drive?

Many people experienced a drop in libido during lockdown and with restrictions still in place, many are still feeling the effects. We run through some lifestyle factors that can make all the difference when it comes to restoring a flagging sex drive.

For many people, the pressures of lockdown dealt a real blow to their sex drives. With stress and anxiety soaring and day-to-day routines disrupted, sex is likely to have tumbled down the priority list.

Among those who were locked down with a partner, the lack of space may have contributed to a loss of libido. This concept was memorably unpacked by the sex therapist Esther Perel in her book Mating in Captivity. Existing relationship problems may have been magnified, and even the happiest of couples might have felt things grow stale.

Among those who don't live with a partner, there simply wasn't the option for physical intimacy even if the desire was there.

Of course some lucky couples may have appreciated having the extra time to devote to each other, while some people actually experience a heightened sex drive at stressful times. However, it's not surprising that intimacy was off the table for many. According to a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, under 40% of UK adults had regular sex during lockdown.

As we gradually resume some kind of normality, the associated stresses seem likely to persist for a while. However, low sex drive doesn't have to be one of them. If the last few months have taken the wind out of your sails, there are a number of lifestyle changes that may help boost a flagging libido.

Why lifestyle plays such a big role

As Daniel Sher, clinical psychologist and sex therapy expert at Between Us premature ejaculation clinic, explains, lifestyle can have a major impact on your libido.

"Libido is affected by so many varied factors," he says. "It involves a complex interplay between neurology, emotion, hormones, physiology, thoughts and past experiences. It's all interlinked. It's not surprising then, that lifestyle changes that affect one or more of these factors, can impact on sex drive." 

He adds that a healthy diet and regular exercise are vital for healthy libido and sexual function. This is because they affect cardiovascular (heart) health and ensure that blood is circulating properly through the body. Smoking can cause sexual problems for the same reason.

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Another factor to consider is sleep. "If we're not getting enough sleep, our body gets pumped with cortisol and other stress hormones," he says. "However, in men this can lead to lowered levels of testosterone, which can dampen a person's sex drive. Healthy sleep is vital for a healthy sex life."

The importance of diet and exercise

While a poor diet isn't one of the main causes of low libido, it can certainly factor into the mix. As a general rule of thumb, the healthier our diet the better our overall physical functioning is likely to be. We should be looking to eat in heart-healthy ways, swapping refined carbohydrates for nutrient-dense whole foods.

And as for aphrodisiacs - while Casanova is said to have eaten 50 oysters for breakfast, there is no proven link between specific foods and sexual prowess.

The importance of exercise is better established. In one study, sedentary men participated in a vigorous exercise programme for nine months. On average, the greater the improvement in fitness, the greater the 'sexuality enhancements'. Small studies have found that women experience greater arousal after working out, while a 2018 review of the evidence found that exercise benefits women's sexual function in a number of different ways.

We also know that regular exercise can boost body image, which can in turn improve your sex drive. You are also more likely to maintain a healthy weight (which is particularly relevant for men, since male obesity is associated with lower testosterone levels).

"There are numerous studies that demonstrate the positive effect of exercising on sex drive, and this effect has multiple mechanisms," says Dr Adam Abbs, a GP at Medicspot. "In the short term, testosterone levels are increased in both males and females, and they have a rise in endorphins, the feel-good hormones, resulting in a higher libido. In the longer term, risks of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes are lower, therefore reducing the risk of erectile dysfunction in men."

To sound a quick note of caution - it may be possible to get too much of a good thing. Extreme endurance exercise has been shown to be associated with a drop in testosterone levels, causing lower libido in men. And highly athletic women are at risk of becoming amenorrhoeic, meaning they stop having periods.

"If an increased sex drive is your aim, you will want less than an hour of anaerobic exercise, five to six times per week, paired with a healthy diet," says Dr Abbs.

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Tuning into your body

It's also important to tune into what you're feeling about your relationship and your body, and notice any anxieties that crop up around sex. Dr Anna Hushlak, co-founder of mindful sex app Ferly, suggests slowing down and focusing on the sensations in your body as they come, and challenging your inner critic.

"At Ferly, we recommend doing regular body mapping - either solo or with a partner," she says. "By discovering what works for you and your partner, you'll be able to get out of your head and into your body, to feel more confident communicating, and ultimately, be better equipped to create the right headspace for more healthy, confident and pleasurable sex."

She points out that there are actually two types of desire - spontaneous and responsive. While spontaneous desire (a spark out of nowhere) is often treated as the default, both are equally normal and healthy. And female desire very often falls into the 'responsive' category.

"Responsive desire is desire that comes from some type of sexual pleasure and stimuli. In other words, arousal comes first and then desire," says Ferly. "Lots of folks think that something is 'wrong with them' or that their 'libido is broken' simply because they experience desire in a different way."

In other words, if you want to increase your libido, it's a good idea to explore how desire actually operates for you. It might help to start a meditation or mindfulness practice, maybe looking into mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) if you need some professional assistance along the way.

Dealing with stress

Finally, anything you can do to alleviate stress is also likely to have benefits for your sex drive.

"We know that a part of the brain called the amygdala is important for modulating our sex drive," says Sher. "We also know that the amygdala is responsible for our fear response and it gets activated during times of stress and anxiety. It’s no surprise, then, that stress and anxiety often lead to a drop in a person's sex drive."

He thinks lockdown may have created a perfect storm for sexual problems. As well as dealing with stress, anxiety and household tensions, many people have been comfort eating, with limited opportunities for exercise.

"We're probably going to see a spike in related forms of sexual dysfunction, including premature ejaculation and performance anxiety," he points out.

If your mental health or sexual functioning has really taken a knock during lockdown, it's a good idea to contact your GP. You might also consider relationship counselling if that's the issue. Libido is a complicated issue, and it can sometimes take some outside help to work out what's gone wrong.

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