Author: Lily Mazzarella
There's a place on my intake form where you get to describe your libido as low, moderate, or strong. Many a creative/forlorn client has written in and checked off "non-existent." Often, this dearth of sexual desire is not what's bringing them in the door. No, libido has taken a seat way in the back of the school bus of life, essentially written off. The desire for sexual play, with a partner or self, is a distant memory.
What's bringing to our consult is the modern condition: sustained stressors of many kinds—financial, familial, political, workplace, inflammatory/infectious—manifesting as fatigue, depression and anxiety, sleep disturbance, gut upset, brain fog, memory issues, frequent sickness, and the rules of one's body's mysteriously changing.
Why should I care that my libido has left the building?
First, I want to clarify that we’re talking about sexual desire, not sexual responsiveness. Many people with low libido can still respond physically once things get going—with lubrication, changes in erectile tissues (clitoris and penis), and orgasm. While responsiveness can be blunted when libido is low, it's not necessarily absent. Desire, however, is a complex, multifactorial emergent phenomenon. Meaning, that like sleep, it is the product of many complex systems, and is often an indicator of health and balance, of our bodies' communication networks running smoothly. And like sleep, libido is a great indicator of nervous system and adrenal status.
What your libido can tell you about your nervous system
We have two arms of the nervous system: the parasympathetic ("rest and digest"), and sympathetic ("fight/flight/freeze").
The sympathetic nervous system gets a bad rap. In actuality, it is required for survival and enjoyment of life. A healthy sympathetic response is engaged when we are driving, interacting at work, giving a speech, or feeling the excitement of new attraction and love. It is our "out-and-about nervous system" that initiates a cascade of messenger molecules, mobilizing resources for dealing with changes in our environment.
Interestingly, for arousal and sexual release to occur, we require a healthy alternation between the relaxation response of the parasympathetic, and the activating response of the sympathetic. This physiological flexibility is a marker of health and resilience. It allows for the best versions of ourselves, engendering creativity, spaciousness in response to external events, good sleep, stable energy and mental clarity. Not to mention feelings of friskiness.
Unfortunately, many of us are stuck in sympathetic overdrive, aka sympathetic dominance. At this point, the stress response stops feeling like "being alive" or "having an edge" and starts to feel like depression, malaise, worry and cravings. It starts looking like bowel disturbance, headaches, body aches, changes in body composition and, you guessed it, low libido. The stress response shifts resources AWAY from "nonessential" activities like digestion and sex hormone production. And the adrenals, glands heavily involved in the stress response, pump out the stress hormone cortisol in preference to sex hormones and precursors like DHEA.
Loss of libido may be a sign that you are sympathetic dominant, and that your adrenals are under strain.
Restoring your Nervous System with Herbs
Adaptogens: These nourishing, tonic herbs balance an overactive stress axis, aid in depression, anxiety and fatigue. They help our bodies respond more effectively to stressors, giving us more stamina and improved recovery time from exercise, increased resistance to illness, and better sleep. Not a quick fix, adaptogens are meant to be taken for weeks or even months at a time for full benefits (though you will likely see improvements sooner). It's no coincidence that many of these herbs, like ashwagandha, ginseng, and maca, have been traditionally used as sexual tonics. One of the main pieces of feedback I get from clients about adaptogen therapy is over time, sexual desire starts to resurface. LB Nourish and LB Stim are adaptogen blends formulated to build sexual energy and bring the whole body into balance.
Nervines: These are faster-acting herbs, like skullcap and motherwort, that can facilitate a shift into parasympathetic mode. A nervine blend is a must if you have a high stress/high demand life and feel internal pressure or irritability on a regular basis. Nervines help us become more receptive and relaxed, allowing for greater intimacy with self and others. I love the practice of taking a nervine and checking in with myself in the middle of a busy day, reminding myself that I have a body: how's it going in there? What needs attention?
They also assist the cultivation of the relaxation response: it is a radical act to claim your space for unfurling of the parasympathetic. Take a nervine and eat and focusing only on the food, breathe focusing only on your breath.
In the Moment and Feeling Easy are two of our most-beloved nervine blends, while Love Sample is my favorite euphoric nervine. A delicious cardamom-orange blend of relaxing kava, stamina-building maca and aphrodisiac + circulatory enhancer damiana, Love Sample has it all going on.
Stay tuned in the next few weeks for more musings and information on sexual desire, herbs and physical + mental health.