Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are hormones that affect a woman’s sexual desire and functioning. When it comes to sexual desire, the most influential hormone is testosterone. Though it’s often considered a male hormone, testosterone — like estrogen– is present in both men and women, though the proportions differ between the sexes.
In women, testosterone is produced through the operation of the adrenals glands — two small glands near the kidneys — and the ovaries. While hormones play an important part when it comes to sex and desire, their role is complex, intertwined and, despite years of research, still difficult to pin down.
Here’s what we do know: While numerous hormones are involved in sexual desire and sex itself, two of the main ones appear to be estrogen and testosterone.
How this book came to be
My experience began.like that of many women approaching menopause. Always having been comfortable with my body’s female manifestations and rhythms, I had expected to go through menopause naturally —without the use of hormones.
Eight years ago, when I was forty-seven, still having menstrual periods – albeit irregularly and several years before the eventuation of my menopause, I could not make sense of the significant loss in general vital energy, thinning and loss of pubic hair, and loss of sexual energy I experienced. To say that I was lacking a feeling of well-being would be an understatement.
When my state of misery developed, I assumed that estrogen was what I needed, and resigned myself to the prospect of taking estrogen and progestin, but my conservative gynecologist was unwilling to prescribe estrogen until I had stopped having periods.
Who Moved My Hormones?
Hormonal changes don’t necessarily indicate that there’s a problem. Menstrual and menopausal changes, for example, are a normal part of development.
However, if a hormonal change leads to a drop in desire or sexual pleasure, and you feel dissatisfied with this, you may want to explore options such as changing your method of birth control or changing/altering your medications.
Here’s a look at factors that can affect hormone levels:
You know this hormone primarily for the role it plays in fertility and reproduction (and staving off those hot flashes). But estrogen is to your vulva and vagina what moisturizer is to your face critical for keeping things moist, flexible and healthy down there.
With less estrogen comes vulvar and vaginal changes, some of them significant. The genital tissue can become dry and less acidic, increasing the risk of infection. It takes longer to get lubricated for sex, even if you’re full of desire. Over time, estrogen deficiency can lead to more significant changes in the entire urinary and genital area, including reduced blood flow to the vagina. The result: dryness, irritation and pain upon intercourse, also called “dyspareunia.”
Estrogen loss can also lead to changes in the size and sensitivity of the vulva, vagina and clitoris as well as reducing blood flow to these areas.
You might think of testosterone as a male only hormone, but all women produce some testosterone, just as all men produce some estrogen. Much of our testosterone is produced by the ovaries.
Unlike estrogen, testosterone levels don’t suddenly plummet at menopause, but, rather, decline gradually beginning in your mid-20s. By the time you reach menopause, your body is producing about half as much as it did when you were in your 20s.
Researchers are still debating testosterone’s role in women’s sexuality. They think it contributes to blood flow and arousal of the clitoris and labia (the tissue around the vagina) which, in turn, contributes to arousability and orgasm. Hormone receptors are prevalent in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls sexual function and mood. So, it appears that both estrogen and testosterone may influence getting a woman “in the mood.”
The exact role that testosterone plays in female sexual desire is still being determined. Some studies connect abnormally low levels of testosterone with lack of desire; others don’t. More research is needed to define the significance of testosterone levels in women and what constitutes “normal” testosterone levels in postmenopausal women.
Hormone levels fluctuate throughout our cycles. A peak of sexual desire (libido) before and around ovulation, with a second, less intense peak during menstruation, is common. The lowest level of libido is often prior to menstruation, although there is much variation from this pattern.
Postmenopausal women, and many women using hormonal birth control methods, have less variation in sexual desire.
Estrogen and progesterone levels are higher during pregnancy, and blood flow to the genitals increases. These changes, along with other physical and psychological effects of pregnancy, can lead to increased desire.
On the flip side, however, fatigue, nausea, pain, fears, or issues with changing body size and self-image may squelch desire.
Breastfeeding can suppress ovulation for months after birth, as a result of the high levels of the hormone prolactin and reduced levels of estrogen.
Many women report a drop in sexual desire while nursing. Some have no libido at all and become non-orgasmic. This is normal; sexual desire usually returns when the baby is weaned or nursing much less.
PeriMenopause / Menopause
During the years leading up to menopause (which occurs when menstrual periods have stopped for a full year), estrogen levels spike and fall erratically while progesterone levels decline. After one year has passed since the last menstrual period, both progesterone and estrogen steady out at low levels.
During this period, women may experience less desire and increased vaginal dryness. Hormonal supplements such as estrogen or estrogen/progestin pills and patches, or estrogen cream or rings applied topically in the vagina, are sometimes used to address dryness.
Some women report that the relief from the fear of pregnancy encourages new-found sexual freedom.
“The vast majority of all this occurs outside of our conscious awareness,” says Mane. “It’s kind of like chemistry between two people. You know when you have it, but you’re not sure what it is.”
The real world notwithstanding, hormones certainly appear a formidable force in the lab. One psychologist investigating how ovulation affects women’s preferences in men is Steve Gangestad, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.
In recent work, Gangestad and his colleagues recruited 66 young couples, assessed the male partners’ intelligence and, using photographs, gauged their facial attractiveness and features. Meanwhile, they required the women to complete questionnaires about their sexual feelings toward their partners and other men at fertile and non-fertile points in their cycles.
The study, in press at Evolution and Human Behavior, produced results consistent with previous research: Women paired with feminine-faced men were more attracted to men other than their partners, relative to their partners, when ovulating. The same effect was found for women with facially unattractive men, though not when the researchers controlled for men’s facial masculinity or femininity. No significant effects were found for men’s intelligence.
Gangestad has found similar patterns for stereotypically male behavior traits. In a study of 238 college women published in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 1) in 2007, he and his colleagues found that, in mid-cycle, women tended to prefer flings with “caddish” men.
On average, fertile women were more interested in short-term relationships with men who came across as confident, or even cocky, on videotape. In comparison, at other points in their cycle, they gravitated toward longer-term relationships with kinder, more conscientious, deferential types — good father material.
Interestingly, these mid-cycle preferences for hyper-masculine men seem to disappear among women taking birth control medication that suppresses normal ovulation. All this may seem counterintuitive. Wouldn’t it make more sense for a woman to make babies with a nurturing man? Someone more likely to stick around?
You would think, says Gangestad, but, in an evolutionary sense, women want manly men’s superior genes. Masculine features and dominance over other males indicates stronger genetic fitness, according to “good genes theory,” he explains.
“Infidelity may be part of the strategy,” says Gangestad. “But while there has been selection for conditional unfaithfulness, it’s also very possible that there was never selection of that sort — that estrus is a carry over from pre-pair-bonding, and has not been modified in the context of pair-bonding (for example, for infidelity).”
But what about men?
Do they have hormonal cycles too? Some hormones researchers say no; men don’t cycle. Others say yes, but their cycles are less studied and less dramatic than women’s. Men’s testosterone cycles fluctuate from higher in the morning to lower each evening, and, according to some Australian, Russian and Dutch studies, the hormone level fluctuates seasonally as well, peaking in October and ebbing in April, notes psychologist Jed Diamond, PhD, author of several books on men and hormones.
Testosterone also declines as men age, and as their levels drop, they experience increases in moodiness and irritability, says Diamond, who in 1977 published the book “Male Menopause,” one of the first U.S. works to raise awareness that, during the midlife period of what he calls “andropause,” men’s hormones change, just as women’s do.
“The whole idea that men show hormonally based changes or change of life has not been studied much in this country, or has been seen as a joke, but in fact there is a lot of research on this happening outside the United States,” says Diamond, a Northern California psychotherapist who most recently published “Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from the Irritable Male Syndrome” (Vox Novus, 2010).
Meanwhile, ovulation remains the primary focus for U.S. researchers studying sex hormones and behavior, though so far, there’s no evidence to prove that women act on a supposed ovulation-induced desire for extracurricular sex. “But there are data trends in those directions,” says psychologist Martie Haselton, PhD, who has studied infidelity and mate preferences with Gangestad.
Though there aren’t studies showing that women seek sex more in mid-cycle, there is evidence that women take more care to look alluring during ovulation, notes Haselton, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In a study published in 2007 in Hormones and Behavior (Vol. 51, No. 1), she and colleagues had 40 judges determine the degree to which 30 young women tried to look attractive at different points in their menstrual cycles. The judges rated separate photos of each woman on grooming and eye-catching dress. One photo was taken as the women’s levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) surged before ovulation, and the other was taken in the non-fertile luteal phase.
At well above chance levels, the raters labeled more of the ovulating women than luteal-phase women as “trying to look attractive” (60 percent versus 40 percent). However, none of the women in this study chose very revealing clothing.
They were, after all, headed to a university lab where they might run into their professors. But it appears that ovulating women do select skimpier apparel than their luteal sisters when attending parties and other such social events, finds psychologist Kristina Durante, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
In one study, conducted with Haselton and published in 2008 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Vol. 34, No. 11), Durante’s team had 88 women draw pictures of outfits they planned to wear to a hypothetical party that evening. Not only were fertile-phase women more likely to draw more revealing outfits, but those in happy long-term relationships planned outfits that were almost as provocative as those of single women.
Durante theorizes that the committed women may have opted for slinkier outfits to retain their partners’ interest. “They were told there’d be lots of sexy people at the party,” says Durante. “So it’s possible these women want to be on their game since others may be vying for their man’s attention.”
Men also get more possessive of their women, and more loving toward them, during ovulation, find various studies by Gangestad and Haselton. Most likely this is also to stave off the competition.
But how do men tell when women get their LH surge? Most obvious are the visible cues: the increased flirtatiousness, the more attractive dress. But there are also more subtle biological signs that research is just beginning to uncover. Some of these studies suggest that women’s voices get higher, that their soft tissue becomes more symmetrical — even that their skin tone changes, becoming more textured and vascular.
Among the most compelling findings in this area are those concerning smell. In many species, the male couldn’t be more certain what chemicals he’s seeking: Male dogs and apes, for example, will sniff females’ behinds to discern signs of sexual readiness. And the male giraffe will instigate urination in the female with a nose tap, then check her output for signs of estrus.
Nothing that obvious goes on in humans. But men do respond hormonally to the scents of ovulating women, according to research Maner has conducted with Florida State graduate student Saul Miller. In a study published online in Psychological Science (Vol. 23, No. 2) in December 2009, 105 undergraduate men smelled T-shirts of young women who were either near ovulation or far from it. In two studies, the men also smelled unworn T-shirts, which served as controls.
Results showed that men who sniffed the ovulation-scented shirts displayed higher levels of testosterone than men who sniffed the non-ovulation or control shirts.
But how strong was the response, and what could this mean? “The effects on testosterone are medium, and we’re not sure of the behavioral effects, but other studies suggest the testosterone effects are large enough to produce changes in behavior,” says Maner. “So it stands to reason that a man is more likely to be attracted to an ovulating female and to pursue her as a partner.”
Not that spikes in testosterone are dependent on ovulation. Most heterosexual men get a significant testosterone boost after just briefly chatting with an attractive woman, suggests a study of 149 undergraduate men, published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (Vol. 277, No. 1,678). In comparison, testosterone stays level or drops after a conversation with another man.
Testosterone levels also tend to drop when a man enters a committed relationship and has children, says Gangestad. “Probably the most effective way, short of castration, for men to reduce testosterone levels is to have a child,” he says.
The effects of sex and relationships on hormones could be quite different, however, for gay men, notes psychologist Aaron Lukaszewski, PhD, a co-author of the Proceedings of the Royal Society study and visiting postdoctoral scholar at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
Other individual differences showed up in the study as well. “On average, testosterone was increasing 10 to 12 percent, but some men were showing huge increases, while others were showing none,” says Lukaszewski. The amount of testosterone, and men’s responses to it, appears written in their genetic code — in particular, their androgen receptor gene sequence. The stress hormone cortisol also appears to play a role, actually squelching testosterone levels when men get stressed. And, of course, hormone levels and effects also vary across women.
Also, when it comes to women, some behavioral neuroendocrinologists think their fellow researchers overemphasize the link between women’s hormones and heterosexual relations.
“It is striking how well this corresponds to cultural notions of women’s value lying in their sexual connections to men,” says hormones and women’s studies researcher van Anders. “In contrast, there are research groups that ask questions, including evolutionary questions, about sexuality and hormones that see a point in studying women beyond their sexiness vis-à-vis men.”
For example, notes van Anders, her lab has looked at masturbation’s effects on women’s hormones, and University of Chicago psychologist Martha McClintock, PhD, has found evidence that breastfeeding women and their infants may emit a chemosignal that increases sexual desire in other women.
Sexual motivations and individual differences aside, one thing is certain: We are, despite our modern advancements and sophistication, animals whose genes and hormones continue to drive our behavior at the most basic levels. Without our realizing it, bodily chemicals are constantly at work to ensure our continued existence. Estrus, it seems, is still very much with us.
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