Stress and anxiety are an epidemic in our hectic modern world, with deleterious effects on our health, relationships and even our sex lives and libido. Understanding how the body deals with stress and anxiety and utilizing natural methods to beat stress and promote relaxation can go a long way in reversing the potential damage of these very modern concerns.
What Is Cortisol and Why Should I Care About My Cortisol Levels?
During moments of stress, the hypothalamus (a very small region at the base of the brain) signals the adrenal glands to produce a rush of hormones. Among these hormones is cortisol, which the body needs in small bursts to help provide the energy needed during stressful or dangerous situations. Cortisol increases blood sugar, helps your body repair tissues and helps your brain use glucose as fuel. Additionally, when cortisol levels are elevated, the functioning of several body systems slows down including the digestive, immune and reproductive systems.
Being stressed or anxious all the time will keep your cortisol levels high all the time. While cortisol is needed by the body for short periods of time, chronically elevated cortisol levels can greatly increase your risk for various health conditions including digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, poor memory, anxiety and depression. Research also shows a correlation between chronic stress and obesity. Being chronically stressed can lead to an increase in visceral fat, contributing to your risk of type II diabetes and heart conditions.
Why Do Stress and Anxiety Hurt Libido?
Aside from these negative effects, chronic stress (including chronic anxiety) can also lead to low libido and other sexual problems. Low sex drive is a common complaint in people who have stressful jobs with long hours, and research confirms that chronically high cortisol decreases sexual function. Studies have found that high cortisol levels also increase the risk of erectile dysfunction. The inverse is also true; cortisol levels fall when a person is sexually aroused.
Why is this? Possibly because when your body is busy producing stress hormones, it doesn't have the resources to make more of the sex hormones that create your sex drive. However, there are other, less-direct reasons as well. For example, chronic stress may make you or your partner unpleasant to be around and more prone to argue, and when a relationship is stressed there tends to be less sexual activity. If stress hormones cause you to gain weight, the resulting poor body image can also dampen your sex drive.
In particular, anxiety can be a very potent mood killer. When you're anxious, you may worry about unrelated things when you're trying to be intimate, which will reduce your enjoyment. You may even be anxious about the sex itself, and worry about your performance in bed. This, too, can impede arousal for both men and women. Side effects of stress and anxiety, such as fatigue, can further contribute to a dead bedroom.
Chronic stress and anxiety may not only decrease your enjoyment of sex, but can even have an effect on your fertility, especially if you are a woman. Stress hormones can cause the ovaries to not function properly, meaning you may skip periods or not ovulate. When this happens, getting pregnant will be much more difficult. If you and your partner are trying to conceive, keep in mind the health effects of chronic stress and take steps to alleviate it if it's present in your life.
Managing Stress and Anxiety Naturally
You don't have to live with stress and anxiety. There are simple, easy, and effective ways to relieve stress. Although successful stress management can vary a lot from person to person, there are still some basic ideas and guidelines to get you started:
- Because cortisol levels fall during sexual arousal, a very effective way to relieve stress is to make love. Even if you don't feel in the mood at first, chances are you'll be glad you took the chance.
- Use deep breathing exercises or meditation to calm yourself down when you feel stressed or anxious.
- Get plenty of sleep every night. Sleep deprivation will put instant stress on your body.
- Get regular exercise. Exercise releases stress and improves mood due to the endorphins that are released.
- Social support is important. Spending quality time with your family and friends will reduce stress.
- Avoid using alcohol, overeating and nicotine to relieve stress. These things actually put more stress on the body, although it may feel like a temporary relief.
- If you have anxiety, avoid using caffeine. This substance stimulates the nervous system, which makes anxiety worse.
- Natural supplements for stress and anxiety include passionflower, valerian, magnesium, B-vitamins, maca root, eleuthero and more. You might find taking one or more scientifically-proven natural supplements to be helpful.
- See a doctor if you think your anxiety is severe enough to warrant a prescription medication.