Libido can be knocked off course for a myriad of emotional, psychological, and physical reasons. Feeling tired, sad, or anxious for instance or having raised blood pressure, poor circulation or a gain in weight can all leave our bodies not responding to the prospect of intimacy, in the ways they used to.
This means that when thinking about ways to help restore libido, looking at the situation from a holistic point of view can be helpful and one part of the approach can be to consider dietary and nutritional changes. Small tweaks may be all that are needed to help renew our desire for intimacy and today we have the advantage of being able to combine the possibilities held within the world of modern nutritional science with those of traditional and herbal medicine, to find our own, very personally tailored solutions.
Feeling worn out and exhausted almost inevitably diminishes libido, which makes it well worth looking at ways that adjusting key nutrients can help to restore energy levels.
A good place to begin is thinking about vitamin D, a lack of which, can lead to fatigue. Around twenty per cent of us in the UK, have such poor levels in our blood that we need high dose treatment by our doctors to correct. Many more of us, have levels that while not officially ‘low’, are still less than ideal and can still impact our ‘get up and go’. The problem arises because, so few foods give us vitamin D and most of us do not make sufficient in our skin during summer months to see us through winter. This is why the Department of Health advise us to take a 10-microgram daily supplement throughout winter months and for many, all year round, is vital to heed.
A less well-known energy sapper is a poor intake of magnesium. As women, a quarter of us in the UK are not reaching our ‘lower recommended intakes’, which leaves us at real risk of deficiency, while plenty more of us do not manage to get our ‘recommended intakes’. The knock-on effects can be wide reaching, linked with worse symptoms of pre-menstrual syndrome as well as disrupted sleep, that can leave us exhausted. Nuts, seeds, wild rice and wholemeal bread and especially good foods for this magnesium but low vitamin D levels and medicines like antihistamines to treat hay fever, hamper its absorption. Considering a supplement of between 270 – 300mg daily can help to plug these gaps and help protect against blood levels dipping.
Next comes iron, not least because the average woman in the UK does not manage to hit recommended intakes and when intakes do not match needs, we can again be left finding it hard to put one foot in front of the other. Fully blown iron deficiency anaemia needs to be treated with a course of prescribed iron supplements, but we all need to include foods giving us iron on an on-going basis, like pulses, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and dried fruits. Lean red meat, eggs, and dark oily fish like mackerel, make other good sources. If you struggle with these suggestions, a top-up of between 7 – 15mg daily in a supplement acts as a sensible back-up.
Vitamins and minerals aside, a traditional alternative for treating fatigue, especially in men, is Panax ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Used extensively and for centuries throughout Asia and more recently in western herbal medicine, scientific research reveals this ginseng to contain a wealth of active plant compounds able to act on a range of body systems including nerves and the release of energy from carbohydrates in our diet. These active ginseng super nutrients may hold the key to its time-honoured reputation as a natural energy-booster.
As with tiredness, feeling generally low, stressed, or anxious can also impact profoundly on our desire for intimacy.
‘Nutritional psychiatry’ is a growing area of research and helps us to understand how altering our meals and snacks has the potential to improve such emotions. Wholemeal bread, brown pasta and vegetables may seem like an odd place to start when it comes to improving mood and libido, but scientists are uncovering fascinating insights into how the presence of fibre from such foods, may play such a role. It seems that beneficial bacteria naturally present in our gut and those we introduce by taking probiotics, feast on undigested fibre from wholegrains and vegetables, triggering the release of mood improving, stress reducing hormones including dopamine.
From the herbal world meanwhile, St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is also worth considering. Prescribed by medical doctors in Germany for treating low mood, its healing properties are put down to active compounds like ‘hypericin’, which enhance production of nerve transmitters, including the feel-good serotonin. A small study on standardised extracts of St John’s Wort has been shown to improve the sex drive of menopausal women.
Two other herbs damiana, (Turnera diffusa) and wild oats (Avena sativa) have long been used by traditional medical practitioners to improve libido. Contemporary research suggests that extracts of the damina plants may work by helping to both reduce anxiety and regulate the natural balance between androgen and oestrogen sex hormone, while those from wild oats, help by promoting relieving symptoms associated with mild stress and anxiety and by helping us to have a restorative night’s sleep.
Efforts to enhance libido by improving energy and mood can be complemented through supporting our organs and body systems directly involved in sexual wellbeing and considering our circulation is a good place to start.
A traditional style of eating that focuses on wholegrains, plant proteins, vegetables, fruits, and healthy oils is not only good for our gut but is the foundation for helping to balance blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels. All of these, when raised, play a negative role in blood flow, which in men can affect erectile function and in women, the health of the vagina.
Men with high blood pressure may also have low testosterone, the male hormone that plays, a significant role in sexual arousal. Unfortunately, medications to treat raised blood pressure can reduce testosterone further. Losing weight if needed, reducing salt and taking regular exercise can all help to naturally lower blood pressure.
As well as improving circulation, looking at zinc intake, especially in men, is important because low intakes can, like raised blood pressure, reduce testosterone levels. Over time, this can lead to impotence and can affect sperm formation and fertility, which may psychologically have an on-going impact on libido. The good news is that each of these issues are reversible, once zinc is restored to normal. Wholegrain foods, crab, pumpkin seeds, haricots beans and lean red meat all give us zinc and since it cannot be stored in our bodies, we need regular intake through foods. A 7 to 10mg daily supplement can provide a back-up.
In addition to relieving fatigue, Panax ginseng also has a centuries-long history of use for erectile function. Research reveals that this traditional use may be down to its ‘ginsenoside’ super nutrients helping to improve blood flow in part by increasing production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide, which triggers a widening of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which may help men in achieving erection. Extracts of schisandra berries from the woody schisandra plant vine (Schisandra chinensis), which grows in Korea, China and Russia have also been shown in pharmacological studies to have similar effects, helping to explain its traditional use in improving male libido.
Less exotic but with a similar action are beetroot juice, oily fish and vitamins C and E. Scientists have discovered each also helps to raise nitric oxide and improve blood flow. Omega 3 essential fats can be eaten directly in oily fish like mackerel and salmon and taken as omega 3 supplements. Vitamins C and E have the added advantage of not only boosting nitric oxide production but also helping to support its release and prevent its breakdown.
For women, switching from dairy to fortified soya milk and including soy products such as tofu, lentils and wholegrains can help to increase intakes of plant oestrogens and isoflavones. While research is not yet conclusive, there are indications that plant oestrogens may help to even out dips in human oestrogen, especially as we move from the pre-menopause through the menopause. Oestrogens affect sensitivity in female genitals and help to control blood flow to and lubrication of, female sexual organs, both of which can impact on desire and overall libido, and so these changes could be worth a try.
And finally, for women, as men, we know that self-esteem can play a vital role in sexual function. If we have gained weight and know that we feel more confident when carrying less, then turning to traditional styles of eating, which are naturally long on vegetables and wholegrains and short on refined and processed foods, can help not only to improve mood and circulation but also to gradually change body shape in the long-term.
Ultimately, enhancing libido is a complex process and involves taking an honest look at where we are in our lives. Nutrition may not have all the answers, but it may well play a part in reigniting that the spark.
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,
Associateship King's College (AKC)