What is Libido?

Another word for sex drive, 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 sex drive from biological reasons to social or psychological factors. In this post, we’re going to look at the main sex hormones, how they impact libido, the difference in male and female sex hormones, and how libido changes throughout the menstrual cycle.

Sex hormones: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone

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 the main sex hormones and unpack their functions and how they influence both male and female sex drive.

Female sex drive

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

A dip in estrogen and an increased level of progesterone, towards the end of the cycle, can cause a slump in sex drive. Many women report having an increased libido during menstruation, while the chances of getting pregnant on your period are very low, the increase in sex drive 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 sex drive while taking the pill, low libido is often reported as an unwanted side effect of hormonal birth control.

Typically, our sex drive is 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 sex drives, estrogen has a number of functions in the female body including:

  • Assisting in breast growth and development
  • Growing of 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 sex drive, it has a key role in repairing and maintaining reproductive tissues and bone mass.

Male sex drive 

While female sex drive fluctuates over a longer period of time, male sex drive tends to fluctuate more frequently, with testosterone levels rising and falling throughout the day. Sex drive is 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. Testosterone levels typically decrease throughout the day and are lowest late at night. 

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

As well as affecting male libido, testosterone also helps regulate:

  • Sperm production
  • Development of 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. 

Causes of low sex drive

There are so many factors that can impact libido, these can be physical, psychological, or caused by external factors or lifestyle. Sex drive typically decreases after menopause in women, but also generally declines in men as they age as well. 

Also impacting libido, increased stress, anxiety, or mental health problems can decrease the desire for sex. Unfortunately, many medications used to treat anxiety or depression can also cause a slump in sex drive. Drug use, smoking, and alcohol also affect sex drive negatively. 

We are all prone to notice changes in our sex drive throughout our lifetimes. Generally, periods when you have a low libido shouldn’t be a cause for concern, but if you notice a change in your sex drive or find a lack of libido is impacting your well-being you should speak to your doctor. 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 it’s is everywhere, from the saucy song lyrics playing on the radio to the sexed-up 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 desire for sex might be.

Why should I track my sex drive?

Sex drive is just one of the factors that changes throughout the menstrual cycle. Tracking your libido 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 1.5 million registered users worldwide. Why not find out if it could be an option for you?

Discover the world's first birth control app.

Jen on the roof terrace at Natural Cycles headquarters.

Written By

Jennifer Gray

A writer with a passion for women’s health, Jennifer Gray has years of experience writing about various reproductive health topics including birth control, planning pregnancy, women’s anatomy, and so much more.

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

Scientifically Reviewed

Jack Pearson

With 10 years of experience working in the field of fertility, Jack Pearson is Natural Cycles’ in-house expert. As Medical Affairs Manager, he dedicates his time to conducting groundbreaking research and educating healthcare professionals.