With Valentine’s Day approaching, experts at The Endocrine Society said common hormones such as estrogen, testosterone, and oxytocin can play important roles in sexual desire and function in ways that might challenge commonly held assumptions.
For instance, it is known that estrogen plays an important role in helping women be receptive for sex and might also affect libido, which can be a problem for women after they go through menopause or have their ovaries removed, said Dr. Nanette Santoro, the chairwoman of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Prolactin, which women produce in large quantities while breast-feeding, also can lower libido, she said.
“We know several ways that hormones can decrease libido and sexual function in women,” Santoro said. “We’re not so great at knowing how to increase it and improve it when there is a complaint of sexual dysfunction using hormones.”
One answer could be testosterone. In women who have had their ovaries removed, low-dose testosterone appears to aid in increasing desire and arousal, she said. In one study of 447 such women in 2005, 79 percent reported having more satisfying sex, and in two studies of menopausal women it appeared to double the number of satisfying sexual encounters per month, Santoro said.
The problem is that the long-term effects are unknown and there is a concern about breast cancer, so the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve a testosterone preparation for women for sexual dysfunction, she said.
In any case, relationship issues appear to play a bigger role in women’s sex, Santoro said.
“In a lot of the models of female sexuality, there is a lot of relational issues that seem to have a bigger role, more than any of these hormones,” she said. “In other studies that have been done on women and their sexuality, the quality of their relationship seemed to be a big dictate of how sexual function would play out.”
She recommends getting that relationship right to improve the romantic mood – and some flowers would be nice, too.
Both men and women think about sex a lot – one study of college students found men think about it about 20-40 times a day on average, and women about half of that, said Dr. Bradley Anawalt, the chief of medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center and the chairman of the endocrine society’s Hormone Health Network.
“The eyes are important male sexual organs,” he said. “As we’re thinking about Valentine’s Day, there is just no doubt that visible clues, visual prompts are very important” for male arousal.
Dressing in an alluring manner should work, Anawalt said.
Testosterone is important for sexual desire and normal sexual function, but so is estrogen, which men convert from testosterone, Anawalt said.
Oxytocin, which is important for women and is often associated with motherly feelings and bonding, can make men more attentive to their female partners and increases activity in areas of the brain associated with arousal, reward and social bonding, he said.
Massage is shown to stimulate levels of oxytocin, Anawalt said. A 20 minute massage with scented oils might do the trick, and candlelight can also set the mood, he said.
“These things can all set the hormonal milieu” for romance, Anawalt said.
In the end, love and sex is more complex than just hormonal levels, he said. Hormones “provide the fuel but not the fire,” Anawalt said.