Men's health: Libido
Feeling the urge? If the answer is (secretly) "no", then you are not alone. More and more men are reporting low libido in years that would typically be the prime of their life, and a low libido is not an inevitable part of the ageing process as many believe it is. Dietary and lifestyle factors impact more on sexual desire than ageing does, which indicates there are things you can do from a diet perspective to positively impact on your libido.
Testosterone is one of the most important hormones when it comes to libido — this is classically thought of as a male hormone, but it plays an important role (albeit in smaller amounts) for a woman’s sexual desire. The production of testosterone is controlled by gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), synthesised by the hypothalamus in the brain, which starts a cascade of messages resulting in the production of testosterone.
GnRH is highest during the night and therefore testosterone peaks in the morning. Though studies have reported that the reduction in cells responsible for GnRH signalling as we age leads to an inevitable decline in testosterone, other research suggests excess body fat and smoking are far more influential on testosterone levels, regardless of age.
Many athletes I work with view a low libido as an inevitable part of training. Testosterone production can be lower in athletes who are placing a heavy stress load on their body, especially if they have lower levels of body fat. This, probably combined with the metabolic and chronic stress of training, will lower libido as higher cortisol levels (our major stress hormone) resulting from this stress will suppress the production of sex hormones, including testosterone. This isn’t just a problem that lean athletes face; stress affects hormones both acutely and in the long term. There’s nothing that could be further from your mind than a romp in the sack when stress from financial concerns, work or family is occupying space in your brain.
On the other side of the coin, carrying excess body fat also has implications for libido; there is a decrease in total testosterone due to a reduction in sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) as a result of insulin resistance (IR), the precursor to many metabolic disorders including type 2 diabetes. The insulin resistance is related to poor blood sugar management, either through a high intake of refined carbohydrate, inactivity, stress, or a combination of these factors. When there is a high degree of body fat, the area of the brain responsible for hormone production (called the hypothalamus pituitary thyroid (HPT) axis), is suppressed, lowering the production of testosterone. It is a bit of a two-way street, actually, as low levels of testosterone can lead to increasing fat storage, and thus a cycle of metabolic complications. For men, testosterone levels can be compromised further as a higher amount of fat tissue leads to a higher level of an enzyme called aromatase, which converts testosterone into oestrogen, upsetting the hormone balance. Alongside a lack of enthusiasm for bedroom antics, this is most obvious by the development of gynecomastia, or "man boobs".
The only way to know whether your lack of enthusiasm is a result of hormone imbalances is to visit your doctor and have a chat to them about it. But there are a few things you can do on a day-to-day basis to help support hormone balance and enhance libido.
1. Look at your overall sleep patterns, stress management techniques, levels of physical activity and diet to help restore hormone balance. The impact that each of these things has on hormone balance is clearly individual; I counsel as many athletes to reduce their activity and eat more as I do stressed-out middle-aged corporates to do more activity and improve their diet.
2. Remove highly refined foods that provide little nutrition beyond calories, and increase vegetables and quality sources of proteins. These will help balance blood sugar levels, important for those who have a problem with insulin resistance. This will also help reduce excess body fat and these two factors will help increase levels of hormones that may be lowered through insulin resistance and adiposity.
3. While moderate amounts of alcohol will help boost libido, the way many of us drink as a normal part of everyday life really does impact on sexual desire. Too much alcohol can suppress signals of desire from your brain to your body, thus you’re unable to respond, "in the moment" (and likely will fall asleep soon after). The dehydrating effects of alcohol are also thought to impact on blood flow, which is required to develop and maintain an erection. It also increases angiotensin, a hormone associated with erectile dysfunction. Take home message? If two-three glasses of wine each night as an unwind is your normal, cutting this by at least half and having at least two alcohol free nights a week will really help you in your quest for an increased libido (along with improving overall body composition).
4. Include foods that offer the raw materials to help with hormone production. While exposing ourselves to natural sunlight daily is important for vitamin D levels, including organ meat, butter and egg yolks in your diet also contributes vitamin D. Zinc (from red meat, pumpkin seeds, poultry and beans) and selenium (seafood and brazil nuts) are two other nutrients to consider.
5. Cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower and brussels sprouts) all contain a compound called di-indol methane (DIM), which helps with oestrogen clearance in the body. Omega 3 fatty acids, found predominantly in salmon, mackerel and sardines, also help with oestrogen metabolism.
If you are experiencing low libido, don't dismiss it as "age-related" or something that will "sort itself out". If it is a transient state for you, and due to stress, I think it’s more important to evaluate your overall lifestyle and figure out which aspect could be contributing. Getting an overall warrant of fitness from your doctor is recommended (including having your hormone levels tested).