Now that any outrage or embarrassment is out of the way, let’s get into it…
Sex and sexual health is relevant to EVERYONE in some capacity or another. And it’s not talked about enough, in my opinion.
What’s not talked about even more?! How your nutrition is directly connected to your sexual health.
Sex is just as much a part of being human as eating food is!
What and how much you eat, and if and how much you exercise, is directly connected to sex. I’m talking about libido, fertility and reproductive health, sexual organ health, hormones, all of it.
Like, arousal. Like, wanting to do it.
Our libido can be directly impacted by the types of foods we eat. Typically higher quality, whole, and varied foods lead to higher libido. Whereas a food plan made up more of highly-processed/calorie-dense foods can decrease it.
Go figure… a food plan which includes lots of fruits, veggies, protein, water and moderating treats and alcohol can help your sex life?! I wish I’ve been preaching that for years! Oh wait… ; )
Jokes aside, in addition to the above, prioritizing foods rich in antioxidants (like berries), Omega-3 fatty acids (like avocados, nuts, and seeds), and Probiotic foods (like yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha) can help support the health of your sex organs, improve circulation, and balance hormones and body fluids.
Including a variety and balance of proteins, fats, and carbs, and different colors of fruits and veggies is helpful here.
Equally, making sure you’re getting enough Iron is key (like shellfish, legumes, red meat, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, etc.). Low iron can directly impact energy and cause fatigue, which can indirectly impact arousal.
Do you have to eat all of these foods every day?! No! Variety is key and aiming to include adequate protein, fruits and veggies daily is perfect!
One non-food related point to add here… knowing yourself, your preferences, your sexual needs and things you like, can also increase libido because you know what to ask for, how to express what you like, and how to support your own sexual health and needs. Yet another reason why talking about these kinds of things more can be helpful.
An aphrodisiac is a food that stimulates sexual desire.
HOWEVER, much of the information out there around aphrodisiacs is anecdotal. Meaning, connected to people’s individual experience. To this point, many aphrodisiacs can be “real” if you want them to be... for example, if you believe eating oysters will turn you on, then they likely will!
Why do some foods get the label of aphrodisiac in the first place?!
Here are a few common ones and reasons why they might contribute to arousal:
Oysters: These could be on the list because they contain zinc, and people with higher levels of zinc in their system have been shown to have a higher sex drive than those with lower levels. Oysters aren’t your thing?! You can also get higher quantities of zinc from beef, crab, chickpeas, etc.
Spinach: Maybe not a super sexy food, but it has a bunch of magnesium, which decreases inflammation in blood vessels, increasing blood flow, thus potentially increasing arousal.
Chocolate: Chocolate has been shown to increase serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain, which in turn help reduce stress, and can increase arousal. And it’s delicious.
Exercise and Sex
How much and if you exercise can also impact arousal. This range can also impact both ends of the spectrum.
No/little exercise can lead to sexual dysfunction or disinterest.
Too much exercise (in relation to calories consumed) can also lead to sexual dysfunction or disinterest.
Let’s start with the low exercise end of the spectrum.
In a 2014 study of 370 middle-aged women who exhibited some level of sexual dysfunction, sedentary women had a higher prevalence (78.9%) of sexual dysfunction when compared to active (57.6%) and moderately active (66.7%) females.
“Physically active women obtained higher scores in all pieces of the study (desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction and pain), indicating better sexual function than their moderately active and sedentary counterparts.”
Though this study was specific to women, similar statistics exist for men! Cardiovascular health is directly related to blood flow, so being “fitter” allows for less dysfunction.
Along these lines, obesity can also impact sexual health and libido (as seen in this study). This impact may be two fold. Individuals may feel, mentally and emotionally, less sexual, and some of the health impacts mentioned above in connection with exercise can also be a factor here.
And now the other end of the spectrum…
Restrictive Eating, Sexual and Menstrual Health, and RED-S
Restrictive eating, or eating too few calories in relation to how much you exercise, can lead to decreased function of sex organs (like loss of regular menstrual cycle, etc.) in general, so it can impact sexual health and desire, too.
This study states, “Low energy availability underpins the female and male athlete triad and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). The condition arises when insufficient calories are consumed to support exercise energy expenditure, resulting in compromised physiological processes, such as menstrual irregularities in active females. The health concerns associated with longstanding low EA include menstrual/libido, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular dysfunction and compromised bone health, all of which can contribute to impaired sporting performance.”
This imbalance of calories and exercise can also impact your Iron levels, which, as mentioned above, also connect to overall fatigue and energy.
Thus, exercising “too much” can negatively impact your libido and sexual health.
To this point, taking rest days from exercise is critical for all individuals to allow for recovery, decreasing inflammation, rest, and muscular/cardiovascular gains.
If this applies to you, or if you’re a woman who has lost or has very inconsistent periods, you may consider decreasing the amount of exercise you do, adding one or more rest days to your week, or gradually increasing calories to see if that helps support regularity. Or, of course, talk to your doctor about your specific needs and concerns.
With this being said, I do understand that it can be difficult to balance body composition goals and health. You want to lose weight? Just eat less and exercise more, right? Yes, but in a thoughtful manner and only to a point. This is not an exponential effort. Along these lines, it’s important to avoid drastically slashing caloric intake or going on “crash diets” to see results. The byproducts of those approaches can have more negative impacts in the long run.
Bottom line here: Seeking an appropriate intake of calories and a balanced approach to fitness is critical for sexual health, as well as overall body composition and health.
Fertility and Reproductive Health
For many of the reasons already mentioned, our nutrition is also directly connected to fertility and reproductive health.
If you’re trying to get pregnant, it is definitely recommended that you eat enough protein, fruits and veggies, and specifically those that are high in folic acid and vitamin C, such as oranges, kiwis, tomatoes, and broccoli.
Exercise and maintaining a healthy weight FOR YOU is also helpful in increasing reproductive health. (I specify the FOR YOU here because so often we compare body compositions or weights to others and what is healthy for one may not be for others. That, and leaner is not always healthier.)
This study states, “Overweight and obese women need longer time to conceive and undoubtedly are at higher risk of infertility. Higher BMI is also associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as gestational diabetes and hypertension and women undergoing undergoing in vitro fertilization may experience negative outcomes at higher rate than normal weight females.”
The good news? The study also states, “Weight loss programs through lifestyle modification in obese women, have been proven to restore menstrual cyclicity and ovulation and improve the likelihood of conception.”
Definitely easier said than done to “just lose weight,” but potentially helpful to know what the science is showing.
Also, is infertility and reproductive health more complicated than body weight and folic acid?! Oh gosh, yes! For the record, in sharing this I do not mean to assume that these are the only factors making impacts here.
How can we make sure our hormones are balanced?!
It might make sense to just say to refer to everything written above, but in case you want the bullets, here they are:
Eat protein at every meal.
Eat foods that support your gut health (fruits, veggies, probiotics, whole grains, etc). To this point, aiming to get at least 20-25+ grams of fiber per day is hugely beneficial.
Be mindful of your added sugar intake.
Consume healthy fats! (This is a big one as gravitating towards low-fat diets or low-fat foods can negatively impact hormones!)
Get 7-9 hours of sleep!
Eat enough overall calories. If we don’t eat enough, our bodies don’t know the difference between famine and a “diet,” and can shut down or decrease production of sex hormones.
Moderate intake of overly-processed or calorically-dense foods.
Okay, phew, that was a lot of information. (Which I hope was helpful!)
What topics did I miss?! Let me know and I’ll do a follow up!
With this all being said, I understand that some issues are not as simple as saying, “Just eat more apples” or “Exercise more.” If you have concerns about your sexual health, it may be worth talking to your doctor, or an endocrinologist about hormonal concerns. This blog post is simply a brief synthesis of research and studies, and is certainly not meant to be prescriptive or specific to any one individual’s challenges.
And thank you, thank you, thank you to one of my clients for bringing up questions around this topic and inspiring this post! Here’s to your sexual health, and mine, and everyone’s!
If you have questions around topics like this, or any other taboo subjects, I hope this post has proven that I am not embarrassed to talk about these kinds of topics. Please leave a comment or feel free to reach out, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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As always, thank you for reading!