Estrogen Levels and Low Libido: The Little-Known Link
Estrogens are a group of hormones that influence female sexual health and development, and are depleted at the onset of menopause, often causing low libido.
What is Estrogen?
The word "estrogen" comes from the Greek "oistros," which literally means enthusiasm or inspiration, but figuratively refers to sexual passion. As the name suggests, estrogen influences sex drive and libido. Although estrogen is stereotyped to be the "female" hormone, and testosterone as the "male" hormone, both hormones are present in the bodies of both sexes, just in different amounts. Estrogen in women is mainly produced in the ovaries. However, small amounts are also produced by fat cells and by the adrenal cortex, which is the outer part of the adrenal gland, located at the top of each kidney.
There are three varieties of estrogen. The main one is estradiol, which is the most potent of the estrogen hormones and has the most effects on the body. Estriol is another and it is a metabolic waste produced when estradiol is metabolized. Estriol is only produced by the body in significant amounts during pregnancy. The third type of estrogen is estrone. Estrone is the least abundant of the three estrogens, and it is the only estrogen present in the bodies of post-menopausal women.
What Does Estrogen Do?
During puberty, estrogen helps out with the growth of secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts, armpit hair, pubic hair and regulation of menstruation. Estrogen also is responsible for the full development of the vaginal wall and fallopian tubes, making them fully mature and ready for conception. In the menstrual cycle, estrogen prepares the reproductive system for potential pregnancy, stimulates egg follicle growth and controls the thickness of uterine and cervical secretions, among countless other functions. After birth, estrogen serves to stop the flow of breastmilk once the baby has been weaned.
In addition to these reproductive functions, estrogen also serves a role in the brain. Estrogen helps regulate body temperature, prevent memory loss, control parts of the brain related to sexual reproduction, increase the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin, controls the production of endorphins, and prevents nerve damage. Estrogen even plays a role in maintaining healthy skin by improving collagen content, increasing skin thickness and increasing blood flow.
Although estrogen serves a positive function throughout the body, it can also cause negative health effects if hormones fall out of balance. One of these effects is a lowered sex drive, as estrogen levels influence libido.
How Do Estrogen Levels Affect a Woman's Sex Drive?
There are a large number of possible causes for lowered estrogen levels. Hypogonadism and hypopituitarism are two medical conditions that can cause lowered estrogen through underactive hormone-producing glands. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, excessive exercise, pregnancy failure and anorexia nervosa are also possible causes. However, possibly the most common reason for lowered estrogen levels is menopause. During menopause, a woman's body stops producing all estrogen except for estrone.
Lowered estrogen levels before, during and after menopause can have many unpleasant effects. Menopausal women often experience hot flashes, vaginal dryness, tender breasts, sleep problems, anxiety, mood swings, painful sex and low libido. All women go through menopause, which occurs at around 52 years of age. The transition to menopause can last up to eight years, or even more, and symptoms can be severe as estrogen levels are erratic during this time.
Lowered estrogen levels caused by menopause can reduce libido in three different ways. For one, the mood swings, depression and other similar symptoms may make the menopausal woman simply not be in the mood for sex. Another way is that low estrogen levels cause the vagina to become drier, with thinner walls, making sex painful and therefore undesired. The third way is that estrogen directly affects libido. Alleviating the sexual symptoms of menopause can be complicated and tricky.
What Can Be Done About It?
Women experiencing vaginal dryness caused by low estrogen should first try over-the-counter water-based personal lubricants. A lubricant is often enough to reduce pain during sex. However, if lubricants don't help, prescription medications may be needed. These include vaginal creams and hormone pills. However, synthetic estrogen pills can carry many side effects and increase your risk for some diseases, so they are generally not used as a first resort. Talk to your doctor about possible treatments if you're experiencing low libido caused by menopause or other estrogen-related conditions.