By Ian Kerner, Ph.D., LMFT
Whether you're a man or a woman, your sexual health and your overall health are intimately connected to each other in more ways than one. To take one example: a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that erectile dysfunction is often an early indicator of poor cardiovascular health. Researchers followed more than 2,300 men for an average of four years and found that men with ED had a 58% greater risk of coronary heart disease.
Diet, exercise, stress management and nutrition all play a role in healthy sexual function. So are you sexually fit?
The Exercise Factor
Regular aerobic workouts help to keep the blood flowing and the arteries producing nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is the life blood of sexual arousal. Men who don't exercise are much more likely to experience bouts of erectile disorder than those who do; women who don't exercise are also more likely to experience arousal issues. Not only is overall blood flow heightened during aerobic exercise, but feel-good endorphins (natural opiates) that contribute to relaxation and sexual arousal are also released. Exercise also plays a major role in generating positive self-esteem, which is perhaps the most powerful sexual enhancer.
The Food Factor
A poor diet is a major contributor to heart disease, high cholestoerol, arterial plaque and high blood pressure, among other conditions, all of which inhibit blood flow to the genitals and impact both desire and arousal. So what's key to the "desire diet"? Eat for the heart, and you're eating for desire. One of the keys to a healthy diet is the idea of nutrient density. In short, when the ratio of nutrients to calories in a food is high -- as is the case with most vegetables -- fat burnsoff and health is maximized. Hence, the more nutrient-dense foods you consume, the more you will be satisfied with fewer calories, and the less you will crave more high-calorie foods.
The Stress Factor
All stressed our with nowhere to go? Stress can take a major toll on your sex life. For men, work-related stress is particularly likely to inhibit desire, while women are often more susceptible to stressors that originate at home. Obviously, our sex lives themselves can be a source of stress and anxiety all of which can create a vicious, destructive cycle. To have a healthy sex life, you have to be in the sort of relationship that supports having a healthy sex life. Communication, positive sentiment and mutual support are all part of the foundation of a healthy sex life. What happens outside the bedroom affects what happens inside the bedroom, but that doesn't mean you have to let outside stressors put a damper on intimacy.
The Sleep Factor
Sleep is as vital to our physical well-being as food and water, and even a single restless night will find its expression in higher levels of stress and lower levels of arousal. Conversely, those who are well rested are more able to have better sex.
The Vitamin Factor
L-arginine, an amino acid, is a building block of protein and converts to nitric oxide, which, as we discussed earlier, is vital to sexual arousal. Pycnogenol is a combination of many antioxidants extracted from the bark of a pine tree and is known to protect the heart, fight those nasty free radicals and increase sexual arousal. Omega-3s, which are found in certain fish oils, reduce plaque that builds up in arterial walls and impairs blood flow, hence increasing levels of sexual arousal and response. Vitamins C and E are powerful antioxidant supplements that protect against free radicals and reduce fatty deposits in the blood. Most of these vitamins and minerals can be found in a quality multivitamin or simply by eating nutritiously.
The Age Factor
As we age, both men and women may find themselves taking longer to become sexually aroused or even losing interest in sex altogether. In men, waning testosterone levels can make a guy moody, irritable and depressed. Decreased testosterone also places men at a greater risk for heart disease as well as making them more prone to injury due to decreasing bone density. For women, changes in sexuality associated with menopoause may affect lubrication, arousal, orgasm and overall sex drive. But without a doubt, one of the more pronounced symptoms related to menopause (as well as its early onset during perimenopause) is reduced libido. But even so the capacity to have satisfying sexual relationships does not disappear with age. We remain sexual throughout our lives, and many couples find that sex becomes more intense and intimate as they age. It's not as simple as less hormones equals less sex. It's all about lifestyle: exercise, diet, sleep and a healthy engagement with life.
The Drug and Alcohol Factor
We all know that tobacco contributes to lung and heart disease, but many people don't realize that it seriously affects sexual health as well. Smoking damages the arteries affecting blood flow to the genitals, and it leads to a loss of desire and arousal in both men and women. In terms of alcohol consumption, most of us know that having a drink or two before sex may help us relax and ease our inhibitions. But high levels of consumption can also result in sexual dysfunction. From causing the loss of erections to preventing your ability to get or stay aroused, alcohol disables the natural sexual response of the autonomic nervous system. Other chemical substances, like marijuana and cocaine also have known links to low sex drive and sexual dysfunction.
The Physical Wellness Factor
From temporary ankle sprains to lifelong high blood pressure to seasonal hay fever allergies to insulin-dependent diabetes many of us suffer from health issues that require immediate to long-term treatment and care. It is important to realize that both the conditions and treatment may have some impact on your level of desire and sexual function. Even something as simple as going on the pill can wreak havoc on your libido. But regardless of what particular problems you may be suffering from, you can still find ways to incorporate sexual and emotional intimacy into your life.
Your Homework for Today:
As you go through your day, think about how each daily activity affects your sexual health and whether it fundamentally helps you or hurts you. Take notes as you go along. For example:
Once you've gone through your day, take a good look at your list and flesh it out. Are there more hurts than helps? What else could you do that would help? Are there behaviors that could be altered to move them from the hurt to the help category? Tomorrow, do your best to improve the ratio of helps to hurts.
Remember, for a lifetime of good health and good sexual function: get active, choose more nutritious foods and keep having sex!