What Is Libido?

Defining Sex Drive and Sexual Desire

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Libido is the term used to describe sexual appetite or sex drive. It is influenced by hormones, brain function, and learned behaviors irrespective of a person's biological sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Libido can vary from one person to the next, with some people having a "high" libido and others having a "low" libido. Libido can also fluctuate due to a person's emotional state, hormone levels, and physical health.

With that said, there is no set definition for a "normal" libido. A high or low libido is only considered a problem if it interferes with relationships, sexual function, or a person's well-being or quality of life.

This article looks at the causes and symptoms of high and low libido and when they might be considered a problem. It also describes treatment options if you either want to increase your libido or curb an excessive sexual appetite.

Potential Causes of Low Libido

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

For the purpose of the article, the term male refers to people born with penises and other male reproductive organs, while female refers to the people born with vaginas and other female reproductive organs.

Understanding Libido

Libido and sexuality often get confused. In many cultures, people who identify as male are expected to have—and often praised for having—a high sex drive. By contrast, people who identify as female can be censured for having the same sexual appetite or drive.

Libido is a description of the overall desire for sex in the absence of cultural judgment or expectations.

In psychology, libido is often described as a component of "life instinct" or the "instinctive biological drive" for sex. In medicine, libido is frequently used to assess a person's emotional state, sexual function, or response to health concerns or medical treatments.

In either respect, libido is neither considered "good" nor "bad." It is simply a state of being that can change or fluctuate for any number of reasons.

Whether biologically male or female, the same neural and biochemical pathways are involved in a person's sex drive and appetite. This, in turn, can stimulate sexual arousal, which triggers a physiological response (such as an erect penis or the enlargement and lubrication of the labia).

Overly High Libido

When a person's libido is high, they are more likely to desire sexual intimacy and to seek it out with a partner or through masturbation.

Aside from contributing to a satisfying sex life, a high libido also offers numerous health benefits, including:

  • Less stress
  • Better mental health
  • Healthy relationships
  • Boosted confidence
  • Better sleep
  • More exercise

While a high libido can be a good thing, an overly high libido is one that interferes with a person's quality of life and may be a sign of a hormonal imbalance, neurological disorder, or mood disorder such as hypersexuality.

There's a discernible difference between a robust libido and one that is too high. It is when sexual appetite feels out of control and interferes with daily life that there may be cause for concern.

Symptoms

Your libido is potentially overly high if:

  • Your sex life begins to impact your life, relationships, health, and work.
  • Sexual desire takes over your thoughts and behavior.
  • You use sex to cope with emotional challenges such as depression or anxiety. 
  • Your relationships are at risk due to your high sexual appetite. 
  • You feel empty or unfulfilled after having sex.

Hypersexuality Disorder

If you have persistent sexual urges that feel out of your control, you may have hypersexuality disorder, a common feature of bipolar disorder.

Causes

An overly high libido is nothing to be ashamed of. In some cases, it may be the sign of an underlying medical cause, such as:

Treatment

Once the cause of overly high libido is determined, the treatment can be targeted to manage the problem.

For example, if a medication is to blame, the dosage may be changed or a different drug prescribed. Likewise, treating an underlying brain disorder can help normalize sexual desire. Other strategies, including psychotherapy and increased physical activity, may also help.

Low Libido

Low libido is more common than overly high libido and has many more potentially treatable causes. The causes can be broadly described as psychological (relating to the mind), physiological (relating to the body), pharmaceutical (drug-related), or pathological (related to disease).

Symptoms

There are no clinical criteria for diagnosing low libido. What's more, there is a high degree of variation in how libido is experienced since "normal" can vary from one person to the next.

However, commonly cited symptoms of low libido include:

  • Loss of desire for a partner
  • Disinterest in masturbation
  • Few or no sexual fantasies
  • Stress or concern about a lack of interest in sex 

Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder

Persistently low libido may be an indication of hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD), a mood disorder characterized by the persistent lack of sexual desire or sexual fantasies in the absence of any known medical cause.

Causes

Hormonal shifts are a common cause of low libido. People of all biological sexes can experience low libido in response to decreases in the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Among these, testosterone is the chief influencer of libido.

Males are especially influenced by testosterone as it is also involved in the production of sperm, sexual function, and secondary male characteristics such as facial hair and increased muscle mass.

Very low testosterone—defined as below 300 nanograms per deciliter of blood—is called hypogonadism. It is a relatively common condition given that testosterone levels start to decline after age 30. From age 30 to 60, testosterone levels can drop by 30% or more.

Females also can experience a decrease in sexual desire as a result of low testosterone. For most, however, declining estrogen levels are the central issue. In a study published in Sexual Medicine, 26% of premenopausal females and 52% of menopausal females struggled with low sexual desire due to natural declines in estrogen.

Stress can also indirectly impact sex hormones in people of all genders. Stress causes the release of hormones known as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), both of which suppress testosterone levels.

Other potential causes of low libido include:

Treatment

The key to effectively treating low libido is identifying the cause. In many cases, a combination of approaches may be necessary to enhance sexual drive.

Lifestyle Changes

Certain habits can contribute to low libidos, such as a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, and alcohol abuse. Addressing these issues may improve your sexual energy and interest. This may involve:

  • Getting more exercise 
  • Following a healthy, nutritious diet
  • Managing stress
  • Quitting smoking, drug use, or excessive alcohol consumption
  • Communicating more directly about your needs with your sexual partner

Behavioral Therapy

A therapist who specializes in sexual issues can help you and your partner identify the emotional sources of low libido. A therapist can also offer practical tips for enhancing desire and sexual enjoyment in the bedroom.

Medications

There are only a few medications known to be helpful in enhancing low libido. For females, these include Addyi (flibanserin) and Bremelanotide Vyleesi (bremelanotide). For males, erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra (sildenafil) may help increase confidence in those with performance anxiety.

Some natural remedies may also help increase libido. including maca root (Lepidium meyenii) and horny goat weed (Epimedium grandiflorum).

Summary

Libido describes a person's sex drive and sexual appetite. It can be influenced by a person's physical health, mood, brain function, and hormonal function.

Libido differs from one person to the next, and there is no set definition as to what a "normal" sex drive is.

With that said, if high libido or low libido is causing you distress or interfering with relationships or sexual function, speak with your healthcare provider. Depending on whether the cause is psychological, physical, pathological, or pharmaceutical, there may be treatments that can help.

A Word From Verywell

Sexual desire can be a touchy topic. Whether your libido feels like it's in overdrive or you have no appetite for sex at all, you may feel uncomfortable thinking about the issue—much less talking about it with your partner or healthcare provider.

But remember: both your partner and healthcare provider want nothing more than to help you. And, while the solution may not always be straightforward, there is usually a treatment that can help if you confront the issue and not let embarrassment or shame get in the way.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes low libido?

    Low libido can be caused by many varied factors, including stress, fatigue, diabetes, arthritis, smoking, drug use, high blood pressure, and mood disorders. Identifying the cause of low libido is the first step toward treatment.

  • What is considered an abnormally high sex drive?

    The definition of an excessive sex drive will vary between people, but generally, it can be identified by a few signs.

    • Sex life negatively affects work, relationships, health, or life in general
    • Mental health is managed exclusively using sex
    • Thoughts fully revolve around sex
    • Having sex leaves you feeling unfulfilled
8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By S. Nicole Lane
S. Nicole Lane is a freelance health journalist focusing on sexual health and LGBTQ wellness. She is also the editorial associate for the Chicago Reader.