If your sex life hasn't been quite as sexy lately, we feel you. This time of year sometimes brings about seasonal depression, weight gain, and work-related burnout. First things first: Take inventory of your relationship. Are you unhappy with your partner? Has your self-esteem or body image limited your desire to be intimate? Has this problem popped up in the past? Answer these questions, free of judgment. If the answer is "no" for all three, you may be suffering from a lower sex drive in connection with something else.
Board-certified integrative physician and licensed psychotherapist, Edison de Mello, MD, Ph.D., explains: "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, your low libido may have to do with your gut health. I know, we were surprised too. Keep reading to find out why.
Like many conditions, according to de Mello, the desire for sexual activity starts in your gut. Proper gut health may help decrease the occurrence of bloating, gas, acid reflux, and other reactions. "I often see low libido as a symptom stemming from an imbalance of the gut flora (dysbiosis), even though most us do not necessarily think of our intestines when we think about sexual arousal," de Mello says. "But, the gastro-intestinal track, aka our gut system, plays a major physical factor that has many unexpected effects on our ability to respond and perform sexually."
This happens because the gut contains billions of bacteria. "Gut bacteria is to our digestion and metabolism what a beehive is to honey: a hardworking hive equals great honey, while a well-balanced gut results in optimized gastrointestinal function and better sex. These bacteria are responsible for producing hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters (like serotonin), which are essential for sexual health." There have been multiple studies that analyze the fascinating relationship between our gut bacteria and sex drive. One study demonstrated that probiotic yogurt (which increases "good" bacteria in the gut) imbued male mice with more testosterone and enhanced libido.
Below, we detail the three most common reasons for an unhealthy gut, and, subsequently, a lower libido.
1. Your Diet
Incorporating a lot of sugar and processed foods into your diet is not good for your gut, warns de Mello. Rebecca Lewis, a registered dietitian at HelloFresh, agrees: "As a society, we have increased the use of broad spectrum antibiotics and also consume a diet of highly processed foods: This combination has [diminished the] ecosystem of bacteria in the microbiome of our digestive organs." Instead, incorporate non-starchy veggies and fruits, and a few fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, and kombucha (which contain digestion-friendly bacteria strains).
2. Your Sedentary Lifestyle
Stanford University's Justin and Erica Sonnenburg note in their book, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health, "Several physiological changes that result from exercise, such as increasing intestinal transit time (or flow rate) through the gut, influencing metabolism, and altering immune function, are known to affect the microbiota." Try increasing your workouts or taking up a yoga practice. It may help your metabolism and your sex life.
3. Your Medication
Amy Myers, MD, the author of The Autoimmune Solution and The Thyroid Connection Antibiotics, explains that while antibiotics are important, they can do some damage to your gut health. "Antibiotics work by blocking vital processes in bacteria that either kill the bacteria or stop them from multiplying. Unfortunately, antibiotics cannot differentiate between the 'bad' bacteria that may be causing a bacterial infection and the 'good' bacteria that belong in your gut." Since they're often necessary to maintain your health, make sure to take a probiotic to counteract the effects.
Moreover, a study in the journal of Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, researchers found, "Participants who received the four-week multispecies probiotics intervention showed a significantly reduced overall cognitive reactivity to sad mood, which was largely accounted for by reduced rumination and aggressive thoughts."
Next up, read about how to turn down your stress hormones and turn up your sex hormones.
Poutahidis T, Springer A, Levkovich T, et al. Probiotic microbes sustain youthful serum testosterone levels and testicular size in aging mice. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(1):e84877. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084877
Dimidi E, Cox SR, Rossi M, Whelan K. Fermented foods: definitions and characteristics, impact on the gut microbiota and effects on gastrointestinal health and disease. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1806. doi:10.3390/nu11081806
Cleveland Clinic. How to prevent diarrhea while you take antibiotics. Updated January 24, 2020.
Steenbergen L, Sellaro R, Van hemert S, Bosch JA, Colzato LS. A randomized controlled trial to test the effect of multispecies probiotics on cognitive reactivity to sad mood. Brain Behav Immun. 2015;48:258-64. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2015.04.003