Picture this- it’s Friday night and your about to leave work and head home for a night of romance and relaxation with your partner. All of a sudden your boss calls and needs you to finish a project over the weekend. On the way home you catch every red light and someone in a flashy sports car cuts you off. By the time you finally arrive home you realise you left your passion somewhere between the office and those multiple red lights. As you have probably experienced in the past, sex and stress don’t really mix. To put it bluntly, stress isn’t sexy!!!!
The relationship between stress and sex is a complex one, so let’s try and simplify it. The word ‘stress’ is referring to biochemical and hormonal changes that occur in the body and is not just an emotional response as many people think. Stress can be physical, mental or emotional. So what is the connection between the stress response and the sex response? The stress response is controlled by the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) and the sex response is controlled by the hypothalamic pituitary-gonadal axis (HPG axis). As you can see both responses require the Hypothalamus and the pituitary gland in order to function correctly. So when we are stressed our stress hormones can impact or interfere with our sexual function via the HPG and HPA axis.
So what is the hypothalamus and pituitary’s role? The hypothalamus is part of the brain that controls our most basic instincts-fight, flight, feed and mate. The hypothalamus then directs the pituitary gland (which is attached to the hypothalamus) to secrete necessary hormones throughout the body. This includes our stress hormones including cortisol or our sex hormones. This is where the interference occurs. If we are stressed our hypothalamus is ordering the pituitary gland to secrete our stress hormones, putting on hold the production and release of our sex hormones.
Cleverly our adrenals also produce stress and sex hormones including DHEA (sex hormone). DHEA is a precursor to both testosterone and oestrogen. You may know that most males have high levels of testosterone, but women also need testosterone in small amounts and it’s this hormone that has a strong impact on libido. In menstruating women both the ovaries and the adrenals (via the production of DHEA) produce testosterone, but in menopausal women only the adrenals contribute to the production of testosterone. Therefore if you are a menopausal women with adrenal fatigue or suffer from prolonged stress not only will your stress response be in overdrive you will not be producing enough sex hormones and your sex life will suffer. But this does not only affect menopausal women with adrenal fatigue, high stress levels are associated with reduced sexual functioning in general and research shows an elevated cortisol (stress hormone) ratio to low levels of DHEA (sex hormone).
So let’s look at ways that we can enhance our sexual response and manage our stress response:
- Physical contact- This doesn’t have to involve sex, it can be as simple as holding hands or giving your partner a massage.
- Nutrition- Adaptagen herbs such as Withania and Siberian Ginseng help your body and mind cope with stress, and the Peruvian root Maca is widely used to promote sexual function for both men and women as well as improve mood and reduce menstrual cramping and hormonal imbalances.
- Be more organised- if you constantly have a list of things to do running through your head, you can guarantee sex will probably not be one of them. Try and be more organised or at least write down your to do list so you don’t become easily distracted
- Meditation- being present will not only reduce your stress levels, it will boost your sexual desire. Try it out for as little as 10 minutes per day. You can download a guided meditation or go do a meditation class. Use these guided meditations or class techniques to start the day and to end the day to help switch off. You can also use these techniques at any time throughout the day if feeling low on energy, anxious, overwhelmed or stressed
- Exercise- we all know that exercise increases endorphins which make us happy and reduces stress. Endorphins bind to receptor cells which block the transmission of pain signals, giving a euphoric feeling (very similar to opiates). Sounds pretty sweet doesn’t it? So try something you enjoy. This is going to be different for everyone. Any exercise is better than none, so do whatever you are comfortable with. This can be as simple as a 30 minute walk, yoga, Pilates or swimming. You may prefer going for a jog or joining a gym or classes.
- Have an Epsom salt bath with or without your partner- Epsom salts are magnesium salts and magnesium is our relaxing mineral. Magnesium is easily absorbed via the skin (transdermal absorption) and will help reduce stress and help you relax. Baths are often prescribed for people that don’t have enough ‘me time’. This forces us to slow down and if you choose to have a bath with your partner this will also include physical contact- a sexual, stress reducing treat!
- Nourish your adrenals- B vitamins, vitamin C, manganese, magnesium (as mentioned above) and adaptogenic herbs all help nourish adrenals. Speak to us if you feel you suffer from adrenal fatigue.
- Sleep- Getting enough sleep is one of the most important stress management techniques. When we are asleep, our cortisol levels (our stress hormone) should drop to allow our body to recoup for the following day, allowing us to wake feeling refreshed. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. The best sleeping time for cortisol regulation is between 10pm and 6am. Try and remember to get at least 7.5-8 hours’ sleep per night.
- Read a book or have a massage- Don’t underestimate the effect a few hours of time out can have on your stress levels. Every week, try and schedule three 1 hour (minimum) blocks that you can use for rest and relaxation.
- Positive thinking- A good attitude and positive outlook is fundamental in this day and age. Thinking positively will help you get through a stressful period with greater enthusiasm and drive.