There’s never a topic that get’s so many of the MyMT™ women more engaged than libido! It seems that as soon as one woman mentions it in my private coaching group, a flood of comments pour in. I’m not surprised.
When my own libido went west during peri-menopause, I just put it down to exhaustion. Crawling into bed at night was simply a mission to get to sleep, more than any other activity! There are so many challenges for women during their menopause transition and for many, a declining libido is just another one of these challenges. I think this image supplied with permission from the wonderful Christchurch artist, Kirsty Collett from Prickle and Pop artwork depicts how so many of us feel when menopause hormonal changes chase away the libido we used to have for years. I love Kirsty’s humour too.
What’s going on with my libido?
There are plenty of women who are struggling with numerous symptoms in menopause, not just a declining libido, and when it comes to our age and stage of life during menopause, we have a lot going on in our lives. You name it – anxiety, feeling time-poor, worried about all sorts of things from teens to ageing parents, work-concerns, let alone all the physiological changes that occur as our hormonal changes send us into the next stage of our life. It’s tough and yes, all of this combination of stress can affect our libido too.
When we feel exhausted from not sleeping, increased inflammation as well as everything going on in our lives that is affecting our stress levels, then it’s no surprise that physical and mental exhaustion affect our libido. But there are other reasons as well, and it’s partly to do with increasing cortisol levels.
Cortisol is a powerful stress hormone that can build up over time in our body. Higher cortisol levels inhibit sexual arousal because high cortisol affects the balance between oestrogen and progesterone.
I talk a lot about cortisol management in the MyMT™ programmes, because it doesn’t just affect libido when it’s higher than normal. It affects your sleep, moods, food cravings, exercise recovery, hot flushes and your immune system too.
So, the first message from me is that if you aren’t sleeping and you are feeling busy and exhausted, then start with turning these issues around. All of these are stressors that arrive in mid-life also have an affect on your libido.
Then there are your hormones and how well-balanced these are.
Oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone are all known as hormones of sexual desire and functioning and they have been helping you with your menstrual cycle for decades.
The powerful connection between all of these hormones and your lifestyle, means that your libido has been fluctuating since you reached puberty. Although your reproductive hormones are classified as steroids, they act as chemical messengers in your body too. This means that your reproductive hormones do not act in isolation – they also send powerful signals to other hormones in your body to either increase or decrease production.
These ‘other’ hormones include your thyroid, pituitary and adrenal hormones. They all ‘talk’ to each other, which means that when we aren’t sleeping, or have low thyroid function or we are feeling stressed, or we aren’t getting the nutrients that our body needs as we age, these factors accumulate and impact libido.
All hormones are affected by your changing oestrogen and progesterone levels in menopause – there is a powerful connection between your pituitary, thyroid and adrenal hormones and your reproductive hormones including testosterone.
Steroid hormones help to control the following functions in the body:
- Your metabolism
- Inflammation levels
- Your immunity
- Salt and water balance
- Sexual characteristics
- Bone and muscle density
Females do produce some testosterone in the ovaries but what comes as a surprise to many women on the MyMT™ programmes, is that testosterone is excreted from ovaries (if women still have them) during post-menopause too. Some testosterone is also produced by your adrenal glands. But don’t worry – you won’t meet the amount of testosterone that males produce. This is around 7 times greater than women, because men use testosterone daily to help in muscle repair, immune health, bone density, reproductive function etc, – in fact, they need as much as 20 times greater testosterone compared to females – even more if they are weight training and growing muscle or are athletes.
One of the most important things that we need to remember is that our hormones are always trying to balance each other out.
Every hour of every day, our hormones are adjusting to maintain our metabolism. One of these hormones is testosterone.
For many women who are busy and exhausted and not sleeping, or for those who are losing muscle tone and size, or conversely, for women who are doing too much exercise, then cortisol levels can be higher than normal. This also affects the levels of testosterone, which can then take a dive as we go into peri-menopause. Cortisol levels should be high in the morning and low at night.
If your testosterone is low going into peri-menopause in your late 40’s (and this can happen when you feel physically and mentally exhausted and cortisol is high) then as you move into menopause in your early 50’s, testosterone levels can drop even further.
One of the outcomes might be that your libido dives.
But if you have been sleeping well, staying active for your health, maintaining a healthy weight and doing some weights and eating a healthy diet that has enough hormone-making fats – which are all known to be ‘testosterone-friendly’ strategies – before you went into peri-menopause, then your testosterone levels may not take so much of a dive and your libido might just stay intact.
How can we boost Testosterone and lower our cortisol levels?
MyMT™ is a lifestyle-solutions programme just for women in menopause that I have researched out of my women’s healthy ageing studies, so here are some hormone balancing solutions for you. [Please note, that if you are looking at alternative interventions such as hormone medications to boost libido (and yes, there are now testosterone treatments) then please see your Doctor].
- Focus on your Food: Testosterone in both males and females is made from cholesterol in the adrenal glands. That’s why scientists are now changing their tune about the relevance of cholesterol in the diet although women with high cholesterol still have some risk for changing heart health, so caution with dietary cholesterol from animal products is still important. Cholesterol helps to make your hormones. This means the right fats are needed to help our hormonal health as we get older. Fats break down to cholesterol as well as help to carry important fat-soluble vitamins that help in the production of hormones. One of the most important hormones for helping boost our immune health and helping us feel better is Vitamin D (and yes, this is now recognised as a hormone!).
- Get your Sleep Sorted. If you are exhausted and experiencing numerous hot flushes, especially in the evening, then perhaps the last thing you want to do is to share your bed with a partner! As the women on the MyMT programmes discover, our normal circadian 24 hour cycle means that we accumulate heat in the evening. This increases our blood pressure, heart rate and thyroid activity before bedtime, so often women either feel hot before going to bed, or they heat up overnight causing night sweats and throwing off the bed-covers the most important night-time activity. Heat accumulation in the evening also increases your cortisol levels. Then these high cortisol levels compete with your sleep hormone, called melatonin.
- This is why I teach women how to lower their blood pressure, heart rate and temperature before bedtime, with deep-breathing strategies and changes to the type and timing of their food in the evening. The importance of re-learning how to sleep all night during menopause is more important than anything else women do. A good night’s sleep can be sabotaged in menopause from hot flushes, night sweats, worry, anxiety and of course low oestrogen production. But as so many of the MyMT women discover, when you sleep, you have more energy and your moods return to normal too. Those factors are the foundation for an improved libido as well.
- Keep your stress hormones down. Stress has many benefits to the body but as we transition menopause, both emotional and physical stress can send us into more hormonal chaos. If you are always busy, feeling stressed and doing too much exercise, especially cardio, and you aren’t sleeping, then you are increasing a chronic stress hormone called cortisol. I talk about this hormone a lot in the MyMT programmes, because when cortisol levels are higher than normal, then this prevents your adrenal glands turning cholesterol into testosterone.
- The reason this happens is that cholesterol is being used to make more cortisol, rather than progesterone or testosterone. By night time, the cholesterol is all used up making and maintaining cortisol, so your testosterone levels remain low, as you crawl into bed exhausted. Have a read of Kellie’s Success Story HERE. She is a sex-therapist and I asked her to write about her work.
- A healthy LIVER is critical to your libido. This is because some of the synthesis or manufacturing of all of your steroid hormones, including testosterone occurs in the liver. It’s why, one of the most important modules in the MyMT programme focuses women on turning around their liver health. If you are overweight, then this module is equally important. It takes 6 weeks to renew and repair the liver, but the great news is that it is one of the only organs that is capable of repairing as we age. In fact if we are feeling exhausted during menopause, then this is often because our liver isn’t working as optimally as it should and we aren’t absorbing our B-Vitamins, or getting rid of toxins, including excess oestrogens in our diet, as readily as we could be.
- Women who have high levels of oestrogen stored in fat cells can become oestrogen dominant in comparison to progesterone and this dominance of oestrogen can lower testosterone levels too. If you are overweight, then it’s important to lose your menopause weight.
- Increase your water intake. Steroid hormones, including Testosterone, are transported through the blood stream by being bound to carrier proteins in your plasma. These carrier proteins are formed from good quality fats and cholesterol in your diet but water intake is equally important to help plasma production.
- Too much ALCOHOL decreases testosterone production. The enzyme in alcohol (Aromatase), is used to convert testosterone to oestrogen. The more you drink, the more testosterone you lose.
- Xeno-Oestrogens in the environment also decrease testosterone levels. These are the types of artificial substances that get into your body and mimic oestrogen. Plastics are an example of xeno-oestrogens. The higher the oestrogen levels in your body, the lower your testosterone levels.
- Poor Thyroid function (hypo-thyroidism) reduces your testosterone levels. Low thyroid may be because you are deficient in iodine, so ensure you have enough iodine in your diet. This powerful mineral feeds your thyroid. Low carbohydrate diets also contribute to poor thyroid function, which is why the nutrition programme that I have for women in the 12 week online programmes are specific to our needs in menopause. The type of carbohydrate that we eat, especially resistant starches, help to maintain healthy thyroid function. It’s why I encourage many of you busy, active girls, to eat more plant-starch during the day.
When we go into peri-menopause, we are still at the mercy of our menstrual cycle. This means that our sexual desire ebbs and flows too. In the first half of our cycle, peaking at ovulation, we are the most fertile which increases our libido. During the second half of the cycle, the egg is no longer viable and our interest in sex wanes, as does our natural lubrication. So yes, timing is everything when it comes to our libido. [I’ve also come across the fabulous feminine balm from New Zealand Herbalist, Georgina Langdale from Archeus Nature-Based Wellness, if you are looking at improved lubrication ‘down there’. Her website link is here. ]
- Are you too thin? Low body weight can also lower testosterone production. With low body fat, excess exercise, poor sleep and inadequate caloric intake, your body detects starvation. One of your gut hormones called Leptin, plummets, causing the hypothalamus to think that you are in starvation mode. Without leptin, the entire pituitary sex hormone cascade is not enacted. No Luteinising Hormone (LH), no Testosterone, no Oestrogen, no Prolactin, no Progesterone. This is why adequate body fat levels are unquestionably crucial for all reproductive function. Some of you will have entered into peri-menopause with very low body fat, meaning that already your Testosterone levels are at rock bottom. Libido goes more quickly.
- RESISTANCE training boosts your testosterone levels, but those women with naturally high testosterone (usually larger women who are strong and develop muscle very easily), need a little bit more cardio and calming exercise, rather than lots of weight training. Whilst alcohol and many medications can blunt your libido, the great news is that the right exercise can stimulate your libido. Not too much and not too little. I have lots of different exercise programmes which are all online, for you to boost your mid-life fitness, muscle strength and tone up tired muscles in the brand new ‘Re-Build My Fitness’ programme. Another important module I have in this programme is for those of you who need to strengthen your core and pelvic floor. As we lose oestrogen our pelvic floor muscles sag and sink and they need extra effort as we get older. Many MyMT women go on to do this programme after they have completed either the symptom-reduction programme called ‘Circuit-Breaker’ or the menopause weight loss programme called, ‘Transform Me’ but it is also a ‘stand-alone’ programme.
Finally, understand that your body is ageing and help your partner to understand this too. Fighting ageing has become a well-established endeavour.
My computer is full of research articles which position ‘resisting ageing’ in the physical, medical and social sciences. For many years, menopause has been heavily medicalised and positioned mainly in the biological sciences. However, more and more research is being positioned in the social sciences about this life-stage. I love this research, because much of it brings women’s voices and lived experience to the fore.
There are numerous cultures around the world whereby women make better sense of the complex relationship that we have with our bodies at this time of life. For example, Margaret Lock (1998) noticed that Japanese women had a social, psychological and biological experience of menopause which contrasted remarkably with that of North American women.
The Japanese women whom Lock interviewed identified other events that were significant to them as they passed through menopause. Few mentioned the bio-physical symptoms such as hot flushes and lowering libido, but many mentioned the changing relationship with their children, house moves, as well as the significance of approaching a different time of life where ageing is revered in this culture. Lock noted that ‘Menopause’ itself is a term that is largely a western, medical name but has social, cultural and geographical variations.
Our menopause transition is a challenging time of our lives – I know it was for me too. But when you understand that your body is going through numerous changes not only relating to its biology, but also psychologically, as you step into the next phase of your life, then you can use the right strategies to not only alleviate your symptoms, but also to embrace the years ahead with pleasure and enjoyment too.
Wendy Sweet, PhD/ Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT Creator & Coach
Gullette, M. (2011). Agewise: Fighting the new ageism in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Holland, J. (2015). Moody Bitches. London, UK: Thorsons Publ.
Lock, M. (1998). Anomalous ageing: Managing the post-menopausal body. Body and Society, 4, 35-61