Sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone
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What is libido?

Another word for sex drive, the term ‘libido’ describes a person’s desire for sexual activity - there is no numeric measurement for libido, but it’s usually referred to as being low or high. There are many things that can affect our desire for sex, from biological reasons to social or psychological factors. In this post, we’re going to look at hormones, how they impact sexual desire, how libido changes throughout the cycle, plus the signs and causes of low libido.

This article is also available in Spanish

Sex hormones 

The main sex hormones are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. While we associate progesterone and estrogen with the menstrual cycle, and testosterone with sperm production,all three of these hormones are present to some extent in both male and female bodies. Now, let’s take a look at these hormones and unpack their functions and how they influence both male and female sex drive.

Female libido

It’s important to note that there is no ‘normal’ when it comes to libido levels, everyone is different and our bodies behave in different ways - and our sex drives are no exception! An increased sexual drive can be caused by a number of things. In women, there are points in the cycle when libido levels are typically considered to be higher. Usually in the days approaching ovulation when we are most fertile, our desire for sex is also at its highest. 

A dip in estrogen and an increased level of progesterone, towards the end of the cycle, can cause a slump in desire. Many women report having an increased libido during menstruation, while the chances of getting pregnant on your period are very low, the increase in libido is caused by a drop in the levels of progesterone. 

Women on hormonal birth control are unlikely to experience the same hormonal fluctuations in their libido as synthetic hormones in birth control work to prevent ovulation. While some women may not notice any changes to their libido while taking the pill, low libido is often reported as an unwanted side effect of hormonal birth control.

Typically, our libido levels are at their highest at points in the cycle when progesterone is low and estrogen levels are high. Progesterone can make us feel bloated, sluggish, and is associated with the undesirable symptoms of PMS. Estrogen on the other hand, can be energizing, gives a healthy glow to skin, and a boost to the libido.

As well as affecting our libido, estrogen has a number of functions in the female body including:

  • Assisting in breast growth and development
  • Growing pubic and underarm hair
  • Regulating stages of the menstrual cycle
  • Protecting bone health
  • Controlling cholesterol
  • Affecting brain, heart, and other tissue
  • Changing mood and energy levels

Testosterone is also present in small amounts in the female body, although not directly linked to libido levels, it has a key role in repairing and maintaining reproductive tissues and bone mass.

Hormone levels fluctuate during and after pregnancy too and this can impact libido. The high levels of progesterone might put you off sex while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, caring for a baby can be stressful and tiring and may not put you in the mood. 

At menopause, our hormone levels no longer fluctuate as they do during the menstrual cycle. This can also cause a lower libido level, but it’s also totally healthy and normal to continue to have sex (and to want to have sex) after menopause. 

Male libido

While female libido levels tend to fluctuate over the course of our cycles, the male libido tends to fluctuate over a shorter period of time, with testosterone levels rising and falling throughout the day. Libido levels are often highest for males in the morning when testosterone levels are greatest - this is why men often wake with an erection, a physical sign of libido being high. This typically decreases throughout the day and is lowest late at night. 

As well as fluctuating in a 24-hour period, levels of testosterone also typically decrease throughout a man’s lifetime. These are usually at their highest levels during teenage years and start to decline after this point. Mirroring this dip in testosterone, libido also tends to decline as men get older. 

As well as affecting male libido, this hormone also helps regulate:

  • Sperm production
  • Development of the sex organs
  • Hair growth
  • Muscle development and bone mass
  • When the voice breaks in puberty
  • The production of red blood cells

Estradiol, a form of estrogen, is also present in the male body and is linked to libido, erectile function, and sperm production. Progesterone also plays a key role in regulating estrogen and is also required to make testosterone. 

Physical signs of a low libido

As well as lacking a desire for sexual activity, you may notice some changes including:

Painful sex - if you experience any discomfort during any kind of sexual activity you should ask your partner to stop. Pain during sex can happen if you’re not sexually aroused, or there may be another cause, so it’s always worth talking to your doctor if you experience it.

Vaginal dryness - this can be a sign of lack of sexual arousal or there may be a physiological cause such as menopause or perimenopause, not everyone with vaginal dryness has a low libido though, and you can make sex more comfortable by using lubricants 

Erectile dysfunction - ED isn’t necessarily linked to low libido, but it can cause performance anxiety which adds a lot of pressure and can make the idea of sex stressful. Talk to your doctor about treatment options, including medication that can help you get an erection. Trying other types of non-penetrative sex can also take away some pressure and help you both enjoy sex.

Causes of low libido

There are so many factors that can impact libido, these can be physical, psychological, or caused by external factors or lifestyle. Libido levels typically decrease for everyone as we get older.

Also impacting libido, low self-esteem, increased stress, anxiety, or mental health problems can cause low sexual desire. Unfortunately, many medications used to treat anxiety or depression can also cause a slump in your libido. Recreational drug use, smoking, and alcohol can also impact our sexual drive. 

We are all prone to notice changes in our libido throughout our lifetimes. Generally, periods of having a low libido shouldn’t be a cause for concern, but if you notice a change to your libido or are worried about your sexual health more broadly, seek professional medical advice. There are a range of treatment options out there, for example, in some cases, therapy can be used to combat stress, which in turn can combat low libido or erectile dysfunction in men. 

While it might seem like sex is everywhere, from the saucy song lyrics playing on the radio to the lusty yogurt commercials on TV, recent studies have shown that our interest in actually having sex is declining over time. 

Take research into this topic with a pinch of salt though, as societal pressures and social norms mean those asked about sex might not always be entirely truthful, contributing further to false perceptions of what a healthy level of sexual desire might be.

Is my sex drive too high?

First things first, there’s nothing wrong with having a high sexual drive. It can be a perfectly natural part of a healthy sex life. However, an overly high libido can become a problem if it starts to interfere with your everyday life. 

If you feel you’re addicted to sex or your sexual urges have become a compulsion that gets in the way of you enjoying other things, there is help available. Talk to your healthcare provider to learn more about the treatment options and lifestyle changes available.

Libido and relationship problems

It’s common for your interest in sex to fluctuate while you’re in a relationship. It can be difficult if one partner has a significantly higher or lower sexual drive than the other, but it’s important we don’t put pressure on ourselves, or each other. 

Having sex when you don’t feel like it can make you dislike it, and want to do it even less, or lead to other issues like performance anxiety. The best thing is to have patience with each other, communicate clearly about your needs and how you’re feeling and remember that help is there if you need it. Couples therapy can help you discuss any concerns you have in a safe and mediated space. 

Why should I track my libido levels?

Our libido is just one of the factors that change throughout the female menstrual cycle. Tracking this can give you insights into the unique pattern of your cycle. Alongside cervical mucus, PMS symptoms, and emotions, sex drive is just one more feature you can track with Natural Cycles, the first and only birth control app to be FDA Cleared in the US. 

Natural Cycles uses temperature data to find and predict ovulation. The algorithm uses this information to calculate your fertility and gives you a status for the day so you know whether or not you can get pregnant today. A non-hormonal method of contraception, Natural Cycles has over 3 million registered users worldwide. Why not find out if it could be an option for you?

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Written By

Jennifer Gray

Jennifer Gray is an award-winning writer with more than five years’ experience covering reproductive topics ranging from birth control to planning pregnancy. She is passionate about providing women with accurate information grounded in science they can use to take charge of their own health - while also dispelling myths that exist within the field of women’s health. She holds a Master of Science from the University of Edinburgh and currently lives in Ireland.

Jack in a suit and tie holding a microphone and giving a presentation.

Scientifically Reviewed

Jack Pearson

Dr. Jack Pearson is a previously HCPC registered Embryologist with a PhD in reproductive medicine. Prior to joining Natural Cycles leading Medical Affairs, he worked for more than 10 years in a clinical setting working at some of the busiest fertility clinics in the UK. Today he spends most of his time working with experts at the world’s leading institutions to carry out important research with the vision to further the field of female health. He earned his PhD from the University of Sheffield specializing in Sperm Metabolism and currently lives in London.

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