What Is Libido?

Defining sexual desire

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Libido is sexual appetite or drive. A person's libido is motivated by brain function, hormones, and learned behavior, regardless of their sex, and tends to fluctuate according to mental state, hormonal shifts, and stress; some medications can affect sexual appetite as well.

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Understanding Libido

When a person's libido is high, they're more likely to desire sexual intimacy and to seek it out with a partner or through masturbation. This is healthy and normal, but an overly high libido that interferes with quality of life can be a sign of a hormonal imbalance or neurological disorder. When libido dips, interest in sex does as well and may even be completely absent, which can at the very least put a strain on intimate relationships. Once dignosed and a cause is determined, both extremes can be treated.

The neural pathways involved in sexual desire are similar in males and females and include cerebral, spinal, and peripheral components. Libido directly correlates to physical responses in that when sexual desire is high blood flow to the penis resulting in an erection signifies sexual desire, as does lubrication and enlargement of the labia.

Overly High Libido

There's a discernible difference in a robust libido and one that's too high. In fact, aside from contributing to a satisfying sex life, the former has health benefits, including:

  • Less stress
  • Better mental health
  • Healthy relationships
  • A change in medication
  • Boosted confidence
  • Better sleep
  • More exercise

It's when sexual appetite is so strong that it 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 mental 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.

If you have persistent sexual urges that cause you to feel uncomfortable or are out of your control, you may have hypersexual disorder.

Causes

An overly high libido is nothing to be ashamed of and in all likelihood has an underlying medical cause, such as:

  • High levels of the mood-regulating neurochemicals dopamine and/or serotonin
  • Certain medications 
  • A condition that affects parts of the brain that can impact sexual behavior such as epilepsy or dementia

Treatment

Once the cause of overly high libido is determined, 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, once identified and treated, an underlying brain disorder may no longer affect sexual desire. Other strategies include psychotherapy and increased physical activity may help as well.

Low Libido

Waning sexual desire is more common than overly high libido and has more potential causes, most of which, once identified, can be treated and sexual interest restored,

Symptoms

There are no clinical criteria for diagnosing low libido. What's more, there is a high degree of variation in how it is experienced (as what is "normal" sexual desire for one person may seem high or low to another), but commonly cited symptoms include:

  • Loss of desire for a partner
  • Disinterest in masturbation
  • Few or not sexual fantasies
  • Stressed or concern about a lack of interest in sex 

A persistently low libido may be an indication of hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which is a lack of desire as well as a lack of sexual fantasies for an extended period of time. 

Causes

Hormonal shifts are a common cause of low libido. People of all sexes can experience dips in libido in response to decreases in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, with low testosterone being a prime suspect.

Low testosterone, also known as low T, is especially an issue for men, as in addition to affecting libido testosterone stimulates sperm production and contributes to muscle mass.

Very low testosterone—defined as below 300 nanograms per deciliter of blood—is called “hypogonadism” affects from 3 million to 4 million men in the United States. For most of them, testosterone levels begin to lower after 30.

Low libido is not the same as erectile dysfunction, although both can lead to stress, confusion, and friction between partners

Women also can experience a decrease in sexual desire as a result of lower testosterone levels, but for most waning estrogen is more likely the issue. In a 2008 study, 26% of premenopausal women and 52% of menopausal women (estrogen dips during menopause) struggled with low sexual desire.

Males and females may be sensitive to a lengthy list of emotional and medical factors associated with low libido. A common one is high levels of stress, which can impact hormones and influence the fight-or-flight response in which heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing increase dramatically in response to a stressful situation and hormones known to decrease sex drive—cortisol and epinephrine—are released.  This may cause sexual desire to evaporate altogether.

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 treatments may be necessary to boosting a enhance sexual drive.

Lifestyle Changes

When a certain habit is likely to be involved in low libido, such as being sedentary, changing your behavior may be helpful, such as:

  • Getting more exercise 
  • Managing stress better
  • 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 should you choose to attend sessions together) can help you identify emotional sources of lack of sexual drive. They also can offer practical tips and techniques for enhancing desire and enjoyments in the bedroom.

Medication

There are only a few medications known to be helpful in enhancing ebbing sexual desire. For women these include Addyi (flibanserin) and Bremelanotide Vyleesi (bremelanotide).

For men, an erectile dysfunctional medication such as Viagra (sildenafil) may be helpful even though lifting libido is not a primary purpose of these drugs

If you’re taking a medication you suspect may be affecting your sex drive, do not stop taking it without first talking to your doctor: They can adjust your dose or prescribe a different medication.

Hormone Therapy

More likely to be effective than prescription medications is hormone replacement strategies, including:

  • Testosterone replacement therapy, whihc can be delivered via injection, topical gel, or orally
  • Intrarosa (prasterone), a suppository that is inserted into the vagina to relieve pain during sex

A Word From VeryWell

Sexual desire can be a touchy topic. Whether you're experiencing a libido that feels as if it's in overdrive or you have virtually no appetite for physical intimacy at all, you may feel uncomfortable thinking about it—much less talking to your partner or even a medical professional about it. But remember: Both the person who loves you and the doctors and therapists who specialize in sexual issues will want nothing more than to help you. What's more, while the solution to normalizing sexual desire won't always be straightforward, in all likelihood there is one—one that will be well worth the search.

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