There are certainly a lot of cultural issues to navigate when discussing women’s sexual health, desire, arousal and gratification. I was going to title this “Putting the Ooh Back Into the Ooh La La,” but then thought: why are we always making jokes when we talk about sex? Maybe we are a little uncomfortable on this topic and unfortunately end up making light of a serious health concern. Part of it may stem from different standards of acceptability for men versus women when it comes to sexual activity. While (thankfully) attitudes have changed over the past decades, it still often makes women uncomfortable and embarrassed to think about their own enjoyment and needs, and reluctant to talk to their health care practitioner if things are not working satisfactorily. And that makes for a complicated mindset when it comes to discussing sexual health and desire and physical challenges that can interfere with intimacy and enjoyment.
First, it is important to remember that sexual health is health. Period. If you are not physically healthy, there is a higher likelihood that problems with desire and functionality may occur. By paying attention to a healthier diet, incorporating some movement into each day, and supplementing with the healthy basics like a multivitamin and mineral formula and rancidity-free omega-3s, a woman goes a long way toward sexual health as well.
Next, did I mention that sexual health is health? Some of the symptoms women experience, such as vaginal dryness, pelvic pain, lack of libido and decreased sexual stimulation can be symptoms of underlying health problems that need to be addressed, such as underactive thyroid, hormonal imbalance, major depressive disorder, chronic infections and even heart disease. Also, there are medications that can cause sexual dysfunction side effects, which is another avenue to explore.
After making a commitment to a healthy lifestyle and taking steps in that direction and talking with a health care practitioner to investigate underlying illness, there are still more steps that can be taken. Though today I am discussing useful supplements, I must mention that physical therapy for pelvic floor pain is incredibly effective in many women who suffer from dyspareunia, a medical name for painful intercourse. There are a number of dietary supplements that can be very useful as well, alone, or in combination. A great many of them are in the adaptogen family.
Red Panax Ginseng
“Red” is not a separate species. It refers to steaming Panax ginseng to better release its nutrients. All adaptogens can improve aspects of sexual function because they can increase energy, improve mood, balance hormones and improve resilience in stressful situation. Red ginseng checks all these boxes and more.
While red ginseng has been well known for male sexual satisfaction, there is research that shows it is helpful for women as well.
In a placebo-controlled, double blind clinical study, women reported that red ginseng significantly improved their desire and sexual arousal. The researchers remarked that the herb may be successfully used as a natural medicine to improve intimacy and libido.
Other research studies have shown that red ginseng boosts well-being and improves arousal, orgasm and overall sexual gratification.
As with most herbs, all red ginseng products are not the same. There can be a great deal of variation in purity, toxin accumulation and percentage of active compounds called rare noble ginsenosides.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii), is a great adaptogen found in the Andes mountains. It has a historic reputation for use to boost energy, mood and sexual health. It has also been noted to help people acclimate to the thinner air of the high altitudes. There is a story that when the Spaniards were colonizing in the high altitudes, their animals would not get pregnant. The lower oxygen levels also impaired the interest of cavorting between the male and female animals, and even when unions took place, no pregnancy ensued. The indigenous people’s animals had no such problem. They shared with the colonizers that they should add maca root to the animal’s feed. They did so, and the problem was solved.
Modern researchers are quite interested in maca’s ability to improve sexual health. One common issue is that the drugs most often used to treat depression, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can interfere with libido and the ability to orgasm. Because of this, some studies have investigated maca’s ability to ameliorate these adverse effects on sexual health.
In one clinical study, women with serious sexual arousal or orgasmic dysfunction obtained a significant improvement in sexual experience, libido and satisfaction after three months of maca use.
Clinicians believe that the heavy lifters in maca are compounds called macamides. Macamides may help balance hormone levels and improve strength and stamina. Studies indicate that these compounds may directly improve intimacy and desire.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) is another adaptogen that does contribute to energy and stamina but is also known to boost mood and reduce stress. It is also a natural intervention for restoring sexual desire. In a study utilizing the self-reported questionnaire, the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI), women reported improvement in several areas of sexual function, including arousal, lubrication and orgasm. Most researchers agree that withanolides, key active compounds found in the herb, are primarily responsible for these effects, so make sure any ashwagandha you select is standardized to withanolides.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is another adaptogen that also has demonstrated impact on sexual health. Rhodiola has a profound impact on mood as well, including reducing stress and depression. This herb appears to have a direct action on receptors in the brain, which affects neurotransmitters such as dopamine, noradrenalin, serotonin and cholinergic receptors. In another interesting study, it was proposed that rhodiola can increase the expression of an amino acid peptide (neuropeptide-Y) that has calming benefits and is found at higher levels in people with a high degree of self-confidence.
Rhodiola can also be beneficial for menopausal symptoms, which can include reduced libido. Researchers believe it is a natural selective estrogen receptor modulator (SERM), meaning it flips the estrogen receptor switches, but is not itself an estrogen, and is therefore safe to use. Rhodiola can help with hot flashes/night sweats along with libido. Marker compounds for rhodiola include rosavins and salidroside, so look for a standardized product for more predictable benefits.
Not Adaptogens: Omega-7 and Zinc
Omega-7 fatty acids are not that common in the diet. However, they have a superpower that is very useful when discussing sexual health: they can increase lubrication and make intimate contact more comfortable. They do this by becoming incorporated in the mucous membranes and helping them better hold on to moisture. Omega-7 supplements are also great for dry eye, dry mouth, and even fine lines and wrinkles in dry skin. The richest source is macadamia nuts, but a great runner up is sea buckthorn berry. There are several clinical studies showing that this extract can make a measurable difference. Make sure the berries are hand-harvested, because the zinc certainly seems like an outlier in this list, but it is critical for the physiological functioning needed for sexual well-being. Zinc is needed by the body to balance both sex and thyroid hormones, and optimal zinc levels are associated with stable mood and sexual satisfaction. Unfortunately, many Americans are notoriously low in zinc, and supplementation with a good zinc, chelated to amino acids for better absorption, can be quite useful. VR
Some references used:
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Cheryl Myers is an integrative health nurse, author, and an expert on natural medicine. She is a nationally recognized speaker who has been interviewed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Prevention magazine. Her many articles have been published in such diverse journals as Aesthetic Surgery Journal and Nutrition in Complementary Care, and her research on botanicals has been presented at the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the North American Menopause Society. Myers is the head of scientific affairs and education for EuroPharma, Inc.