One of the most common complaints of aging populations is the decline in sexual function. This typically happens around or after menopause for women, and starting in the late 40’s or early 50’s for men, when sexual desire may be lower and other bodily functions associated with enjoyment or performance are reduced.
For women, some of the most common symptoms of sexual dysfunction are vaginal dryness, discomfort or pain during intercourse, reduced sexual desire, and inability to reach orgasm. This is often in part due to the sudden drop in estrogen levels following menopause, though emotional and spiritual changes during this transitional time also play a role.
Men most often report that they notice a decline in their sexual performance. This can be characterized by difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection, and sometimes can include loss of sexual desire. This grouping of symptoms is classified as erectile dysfunction, or impotence. Though it is often understated, men also undergo hormonal changes with age, when testosterone production slows. Low testosterone is often the main cause of these symptoms, though emotional and spiritual imbalances are also to be considered.
For both men and women, stress and nutrient deficiencies are contributing factors for loss of sexual function. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, where the body is engaged in a state of “fight or flight”. This shunts energy away from the brain, digestive system, and reproductive organs as a means to preserve energy for survival, whether that means running, fighting, or hiding from threat. Chronic stress and constantly elevated cortisol levels down regulate our sexual function. Regularly using stress reduction practises such as mindful movement and exercise (especially yoga and tai chi), nature exposure (walking, gardening, foraging, forest bathing), and meditation are beneficial.
Adaptogenic herbs can also help support the adrenal glands, regulating cortisol production and supporting sexual health. In particular, a herb called Tribulus (also known as puncture vine) is used to restore balance within the reproductive and glandular systems, regulates hormones, and acts as an aphrodisiac in both men and women.
While many nutrients are involved in supporting sexual function, hormone production and stress response, a few key nutrients stand out. Ensuring adequate fat consumption is the foundation of restoring sexual health, particularly saturated fats from animal sources. While omega 3’s and unrefined polyunsaturated fats from plants are essential and health promoting, saturated fat and cholesterol are the structural backbones of hormones, and if we consume a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, our hormone and neurotransmitter production is negatively impacted. Choose healthy, ethical and sustainable sources of these fats, including grass fed butter and ghee, pastured lard and tallow, full-fat organic dairy, and locally raised meat and eggs.
Choline, another nutrient found in highest density in animal foods (eggs and liver are the best sources) is required for the production of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is essential for the appropriate contraction of muscles that allows the body to reach orgasm. Vitamin B6 has a similar role to choline in the mechanism of orgasm.
Zinc is required for healthy estrogen to progesterone ratio in women, and for testosterone production in men; it can be found in shellfish (particularly oysters), muscle meats, and nuts and seeds.
Lifestyle and nutritional approaches provide the foundation for restoring sexual health. Once this baseline is achieved, supplemental herbs, vitamins and minerals, and amino acids can be of extra benefit. The micronutrients referenced above (choline, B6, zinc) can be supplemented
for extra benefit. Herbs such as gingko biloba can help ensure adequate circulation to sexual organs, while adaptogens and aphrodisiac herbs such as puncture vine (tribulus terrestris) and Malaysian ginseng (euryboma longifolia) can increase arousal, pleasure and help achieve orgasm.
For Valentine’s Day, consider preparing a meal full of food-as-medicine solutions for increasing sexual function. Try oysters on the half shell as a starter, a main course of liver and onions fried in choline-containing bacon fat, and incorporate nuts and seeds with aphrodisiac and neurotransmitter-supporting chocolate for dessert!
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.