Women Sexual Wellbeing
Just like heart, gut, and brain health are important components of your wellbeing, so is your sexual health.
The World Health Organization defines sexual health as “a state of physical, emotional, mental, and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality.” Sexual health is more than the quality and frequency of sex—though these are important factors.
“Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences…” the World Health Organization says.
It’s about taking control of your overall sexual wellbeing: having a positive relationship with sex, having a healthy desire for sex, being able to perform optimally, and of course, enjoying yourself.
But, have you heard about the orgasm gap? It’s scientifically proven that men are much more likely to orgasm during sex than women (nearly twice as likely!).
Historically, we’ve centered the conversation on sex around men and their pleasure. And the unfortunate reality is that many women put their sexual health on the back burner, believing it’s not something that’s worth prioritizing—or that their issues can’t be fixed.
Fortunately, that’s simply not true.
The first step to improving your sexual health and wellbeing is understanding why it matters.
Why should you prioritize your sexual health?
Great sex has its obvious benefits: physical pleasure, intimacy, emotional connection.
Not only is great sex pleasurable, however, studies have shown that a balanced sex life and healthy sexual function benefit women’s bodies and minds in many ways. Good sexual health is connected to your overall physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
When you have sex—and especially when you reach orgasm—it activates neurotransmitters that positively affect your overall health.
A healthy sex life leads to:
- lowered stress
- a better immune system
- a stronger heart
- lower blood pressure
- better sleep
- more energy
- higher self esteem
- an increase in overall happiness
We’ll delve deeper into each of these benefits later on.
The key takeaway, however, is that feeling good and balanced drives our happiness, and a healthy sexual life plays an important role in those gratifying feelings. We’ve long known that poor overall health can negatively impact sexual health, but recent studies show that the reverse correlation is also true: Regular and satisfying sexual activity plays an integral role in the quality of life and overall physical health.
An Important Caveat
The most important thing about sexual health is taking control of your own body and needs. it’s about doing what makes you feel comfortable, safe, empowered, and healthy.
It’s true that a lack of desire for sex can be a signal of underlying sexual dysfunction. But, this isn’t true for everyone. For some people, including some asexuals and others who choose to abstain from certain or all sexual activities, a healthy lifestyle may not include sex or may only include solo sexual activities. And that’s totally fine.
These experiences are valid and important to mention. Even though we’re focusing on the sexual wellness of women who have sex here, we acknowledge that there are people of all genders who can, and do, live fulfilling, happy lives without engaging in sex.
That being said, let’s jump in.
LIBIDO + SEX DRIVE
What is libido?
When we’re talking about sexual wellness, one of the most important indicators of healthy sexual function is a healthy libido. Libido, simply speaking, is your sex drive. A high libido means you have a higher desire for sex, and a lower libido means you have a lower desire for sex.
What does a healthy sex drive look like?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question—we all have differing needs, so one woman’s sexcapades may not be your cup of tea. That’s okay.
Instead, ask yourself a few questions:
- Am I satisfied with my level of desire for sex?
- Am I satisfied with the quality of sex I have?
- Is my partner satisfied with our sex life?
- Has there been a sudden change with my desire for sex?
These questions can help you determine whether your libido is on track, or if you might want to speak to a doctor about your sexual wellbeing.
What factors impact libido?
Libido is not a constant, unchanging level of desire. You no doubt have experienced periods of time when your libido was lower or higher than usual.
So, what’s causing these changes?
Your libido might fluctuate depending on your level of stress/anxiety, how tired you are, the medication you’re taking (including birth control), hormonal changes that come with aging or medical conditions, pregnancy and the postpartum period, or traumatic experiences related to sex or intimacy.
We go more into detail on each of these factors in the “Sexual Dysfunction” section below.
What can you do to improve your libido?
If your libido is lower than what feels comfortable and healthy for you, consider:
- Speaking to your doctor. There’s no shame in consulting your doctor about sexual dysfunction. They can help you determine what is causing decreased libido and offer solutions.
- Consulting a sex therapist or counselor. Libido is as tied to your mental state and emotions as it is linked to your physical health. Discussing your experiences, needs, and challenges with an expert can make a world of a difference, especially if your decreased libido is a result of sexual/intimacy trauma.
- Exercising more. Not only will regular exercise help you perform better, but it will also increase your stamina, improve your self-confidence, and lift your mood—all things that boost libido.
- Eating nourishing foods. A nutrient-rich diet supports healthy blood flow, nerve function, and hormone production, which are all important to having a healthy libido and sex life.
- Cutting down on smoking and drinking. Tobacco may reduce blood flow to your vagina, and heavy alcohol use can also make it harder to become physically aroused.
- Increasing the amount of sleep you get. More (and better-quality) sleep helps you feel more energized and less stressed. Studies have shown direct links between getting more sleep and a higher desire for sex, with one study showing that an extra hour of sleep in women led to a 14% increase in the likelihood of having sex the next day.
- Try natural supplements and nutrients that increase your sex drive. Just like health supplements can improve your brain function or help you get clearer skin, sexual health supplements can provide the boost you need. We may be biased here, but our collection of hormonal health supplements help increase libido.
- In certain cases, trying hormone therapy. After consulting with your doctor, the right course of action for you might involve hormone therapy, which means taking estrogen (or testosterone)—both of which play important roles in women’s sexual function—to increase your libido.
What is arousal?
You might think that libido and arousal are one and the same, but they’re two distinct parts of sexual health. While libido is your desire to have sex, arousal is what needs to happen in your body and mind to accommodate sex.
Arousal is so much more than the physical. Sure, physical arousal is a crucial part of sexual wellness, but there’s so much more to the story.
What’s happening in the brain and body during arousal?
Signs of physical arousal:
- Your heart rate speeds up and your blood pressure increases.
- Your vagina and vulva become wet, lubricating your genital area.
- Your blood vessels dilate and the blood supply to your genitals increases. This can cause your clitoris, labia, and vaginal wall to become swollen.
- Your breasts become fuller and your nipples may become erect.
- Your muscles tense and your breathing becomes heavier.
Subjective, or mental/psychological arousal is a crucial component as well. As its name suggests, this type of arousal is less easy to define, but easy to pinpoint when you experience it.
This type of arousal is the cognitive response you have to a sexual stimulus. In simple terms, it’s the feeling of being turned on. You can be mentally aroused by looking at an image, by fantasizing, through touch, etc.
Physical arousal by itself isn’t enough to result in a satisfying sexual experience: for the total package, you need to be mentally aroused as well.
What is sexual dysfunction?
Sexual dysfunction refers to any issue with sexual response or performance, whether that’s:
- A decreased libido
- An inability to become physically and/or mentally aroused
- Pain related to sexual activity
- Difficulty achieving sexual pleasure/inability achieving orgasm
These challenges can cause feelings of frustration, embarrassment, or even shame. But, the reality is that sexual dysfunction is extremely prevalent in women—between 30-40% of women experience dysfunction of some kind. And according to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, nearly 75% of women will experience pain during sex at some point in their lives.
The moral of the story? Sexual dysfunction is more common than you think. Luckily, there are plenty of things we can do to improve our sexual health.
First, it’s important to understand these issues in greater detail and know what causes them.
A Less-than-Ideal Libido
Your libido is your level of desire for sexual activity. Many women find that their libido is less than ideal, causing problems with their partner(s) or frustration within themselves.
The Arousal Conundrum
Arousal, the physical and psychological conditions that get you ready for sex, can be a challenge for many women.
You might be “in the mood” and want to have sex, but find your body not cooperating. Or, you might be physically aroused, but find yourself mentally not into it. There’s also the possibility that you have difficulty maintaining arousal once you get going.
Vaginal dryness is one of the most common sexual dysfunctions that women experience,
Whether it’s due to vaginal dryness or a vaginal disorder, painful sex is an all-too-common experience for women. You may feel pain in your vulva near the opening of your vagina, the perineum, inside your vagina, in your pelvic region, or even in your lower back.
Congratulations, your libido and arousal aligned and you’re having sex—-but it’s just not as pleasurable as you’d like. You might feel like an orgasm is an elusive myth. No need to panic. This, too, is all too common in women.
What causes these symptoms of sexual dysfunction?
There are several factors that can cause one or more of these symptoms of sexual dysfunction:
The medication you take, including oral birth control, may lower your libido level and impact arousal.
Stress or anxiety can not only make you less interested in sex, but they can also impact your body’s physical responses to sexual stimuli. Similarly, self-esteem and state of mind are closely connected to your sex drive and ability to engage in sexual activity.
Chronic medical conditions can lower your desire for sex or affect your physical and mental arousal. According to the American Family Physician journal, chronic medical illnesses like diabetes, for example, “can have a negative effect on a patient’s body image and perception of self as a sexual being."
Fatigue—as you no doubt know—may make women less interested in sex.
Sexual trauma or other traumatic experiences related to intimacy or in relationships can profoundly impact libido and arousal, as well as cause painful sex.
Aging and menopause can greatly affect your libido and arousal, too. Testosterone levels decrease as we age, and estrogen levels reduce sharply during menopause. Both of these hormones are incredibly important to sexual wellness, so aging and/or menopause can be the cause of sexual dysfunction.
It’s possible that a vaginal disorder is the culprit of sexual dysfunction symptoms like painful sex and inability to become or maintain genital arousal.
Hormonal changes in your body are a major cause of decreased libido and challenges with arousal as well as a possible explanation for painful sex. Hormonal shifts that occur during pregnancy, the postpartum period, and while breastfeeding are especially likely to affect sexual function.
Let’s dive deeper into hormones and their connection to sexual health.
How do hormones affect libido, arousal, dysfunction, etc?
Think about the ways PMS affects your mood and physical wellness, and it’s clear how profound the impact of changing hormone levels are to our overall wellbeing.
Hormones, which are chemicals created by glands in your endocrine system, “coordinate different functions in your body by carrying messages to your organs, skin, muscles, and other tissues.” These messages serve as signals in your body—they tell your organs and muscles what to do.
When your hormones are in balance, all is well. Your various body parts work together to do what they’re supposed to do. When they’re not in balance, however, your hormones can cause dysfunction in your organs and muscles.
When it comes to your sexual function, hormonal imbalance can cause vaginal dryness, vaginal atrophy, pain during sex, decreased libido, and difficulty reaching orgasm.
What can cause your hormones to be out of balance?
Your hormones fluctuate throughout your life, and this is completely normal. These are the most common reasons for hormonal imbalance in women:
Shifting hormones during pregnancy cause diverse symptoms in women. One woman’s experience may be very different from another’s, but there are some common patterns to keep in mind.
In the first trimester, rising estrogen and progesterone levels can cause exhaustion and nausea, which mean a decreased desire for sex.
In the second trimester, however, increased blood flow can result in a higher libido, a hypersensitive clitoris, and increased lubrication.
In addition to the physical recovery and emotional/mental changes that occur during the postpartum period, the sudden decrease in estrogen after giving birth can lead to a lower libido and capacity for arousal. Vaginal irritation, decreased lubrication, and difficulty reaching orgasm are some of the ensuing symptoms.
Whatever your experience is during and after pregnancy, the pregnancy journey will involve changes in hormones that are directly related to sexual function.
During lactation, hormones like oxytocin (also referred to as the “love hormone”) increase in the body. This shift causes a higher level of bonding with your baby, but might negatively affect your libido.
Perimenopause + Menopause
During perimenopause (the period leading to menopause) and menopause itself, your body’s level of estrogen decreases dramatically. This, of course, usually means a lower desire for sex, trouble with arousal, and as a result, pain with sex.
The natural effects of aging and other health issues that may arise during this period of your life may also cause exhaustion, chronic pain, and other symptoms—all of which are deterrents to a fulfilling sex life.
Other factors that can caused imbalanced hormones are medication side effects (this includes oral birth control), high levels of stress, injury or trauma, medical conditions like PCOS or tumors, and medical treatments like chemotherapy.
BENEFITS OF GOOD SEXUAL HEALTH
What are the benefits of good sexual health?
Sure, there’s the obvious benefit: great orgasms. But, did you know that a healthy, balanced sex life also benefits your physical, emotional, and mental health?
A healthy sex life helps you:
- Maintain a strong immune system. Dopamine and oxytocin are released during sex, which reduces the level of cortisol (the “stress” hormone) and gives your immune system a boost. Studies have also shown that sex increases the number of lymphocytes—a type of white blood cell—in your system, resulting in more antibodies to strengthen your body’s defenses.
- Keep your heart healthy and lower your blood pressure. Studies have shown that sex may help lower your blood pressure. Plus, it’s a form of exercise that can improve your cardiovascular health and lower the risk of heart disease. This 2016 study found that women who engage in sex regularly are at lower risk of a cardiac event later in life.
- Relieve pain. The burst of endorphins and serotonin that occurs when you have an orgasm helps relieve pain. This can range from chronic back pain to menstrual cramps, arthritis, and even headaches and migraines.
- Stress less. Like we’ve already said, sex reduces your cortisol levels, which relieves stress. Some studies have shown that intimacy alone may regulate cortisol levels.
- Sleep better. Since sex gives you a workout and lowers your stress, it makes sense that it helps you drift off to sleep more easily. Why count sheep when you can have a romp in the sheets instead?
- Increase your libido. Having regular sex improves blood flow and vaginal lubrication, which will have you wanting sex more often. What does that mean? A healthy sex life leads to an even healthier sex life.
- Keep control of your bladder. Nearly one-third of women will experience incontinence at some point, a sign of a weak pelvic floor. Great sex helps exercise your pelvic floor muscles, which in turn keeps you in control of your bladder.
- Feel better about yourself. Several studies have suggested that having a healthy, safe sex life results in higher self-esteem and improved self-confidence.
- Feel closer to your partner. This one might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning that good sexual health isn’t just physically pleasurable for you and your partner, but it also extends to increased feelings of intimacy and closeness that benefit you in all aspects of your relationship.
What does all this mean?
All this to say, good sexual health makes you a happier person. A recent study supports this idea, finding that sexual activity has played a positive role in psychological health, cognitive function, and reduction of stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For far too long, the conversation about sex and sexual health has revolved around men, with women’s libidos and sexual needs going overlooked. It’s time to change that.
Just like any of your body’s systems, sexual health is complex—and it’s also highly dependent on individual bodies and experiences. Whatever your lifestyle or situation, taking control of your own sexual health is an empowering act, and the best part is that the positive consequences reverberate through every part of your life.