Over time, work stress, emotional stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, and inadequate exercise can throw your hormones out of whack, ultimately leaving you with a low sex drive. In addition, food sensitivities, environmental toxins, and certain prescription drugs can rev up the production of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone,” which results in yet another blow to your libido. Cortisol is made in our adrenal glands by another hormone, pregnenolone, aka the grandmother of all hormones—it’s involved in creating several hormones, including sex hormones.
The problem is that when we are under a great deal of stress, the adrenal glands are hyperstimulated and pregnenolone is so busy producing cortisol that the production of our sex hormones slows down. The result is adrenal fatigue, which can lead to menstrual cycle issues, mood imbalances, and even infertility.
Fortunately, there’s hope for turning things around and getting your hormones—and your love life—back to normal (no drugs required).
If your libido-boosting sex hormones need recharging, your doctor may try jump-starting your system with a prescription version of pregnenolone. This is known as the “replacement model” of rebalancing hormones—doctors will measure what’s low and prescribe hormones to try to replace it. However, taking prescription hormones could potentially cause your body to stop producing the hormones naturally.
The other approach to rebalancing hormones, known as the “functional model,” determines the underlying cause of the problem and addresses it so that your hormones naturally rebalance without replacements. The functional model focuses on minimizing external and internal stressors, and eating natural foods that support the production of sex hormones. Cutting back on sugar, and increasing non-starchy veggies and some fermented foods can help—so can probiotics.
Staying up until the wee hours of the morning might feel you’re under deadline), but lack of sleep is one of the main culprits of out-of-whack hormones. Adequate sleep allows our hormones to balance naturally, relieves inflammation, and can increase libido. Aim for eight hours per night in a blacked-out, cool room.
If your responsibilities at work are causing high levels of stress, schedule a time with your boss to discuss your goals for the future and anything in your role that doesn’t serve you. Many companies are open to change and willing to put processes into place to make their employees happy. Don’t be afraid to rock the boat.
Steer your activities with friends in a healthy direction—when possible, choose hikes over happy hour. Acknowledge and invest in the relationships in your life that push you, support you and hold you accountable to be your best self.
Lastly, get moving! One study found that increasing exercise increased libido in women who were on antidepressants. Take a long walk, go to a morning yoga class, or sneak to Pilates at lunch. All of these exercises involve enough movement to help you stay lean and sweat (great for detoxing), but not so much that you’re overworking your muscles and creating a surge in cortisol from training stress. If you like to work out hard, make sure you are getting adequate rest between sessions so training stress doesn’t become chronic.
It’s not just external stressors (like your overflowing inbox) that trigger cortisol. Internal stressors such as food sensitivities, environmental toxins, and prescription drugs may also be contributing to your lack of libido.
If you have food allergies, your body may be experiencing internal inflammation. Inflammation can increase cortisol production, and therefore it can affect your body’s production of sex hormones.
Know that some prescription drugs can kill and affect your gut bacteria. Thus, it’s important to make sure to supplement with a quality probiotic to increase your immune system and promote healthy bacteria, keeping inflammation to a minimum.
In terms of diet, focus on fatty acids like omega-3, -6, and -9. By eating higher amounts of omega-3, studies find that you can decrease cellular inflammation (thereby decreasing cortisol) and also increase our hormone receptor function, which helps control and balance hormone levels.
Cholesterol, in moderation, also helps support pregnenolone production. Foods like egg yolks, cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, cod, herring), and shellfish (shrimp, lobster, clams, calamari, oysters, mussels) offer a healthy dose of cholesterol that will support pregnenolone production. Just don’t go overboard!
Working these foods into your diet can help to balance your hormones in a way that won’t overload your system the way prescription hormones might.
Note: Always check with your doctor first before treating a hormonal imbalance or making extreme diet changes.
This story was originally published on February 22, 2015, and has since been updated.