Learn about Sexual Dysfunction
Sexual dysfunction is not uncommon. It is not surprising that with so many stressors in life, many of us have very little desire or energy for sex. We all know that sex can be a great way to reduce stress. The positive feelings associated with sex are largely due to emotional and physical relief caused by the release of endorphins. Unfortunately, chronic psychological and physical stress often reduce our sex drive and ability to perform and enjoy sex. There are many advantages to maintaining a healthy level of sexual activity, which includes reducing the incidence of heart attacks, increasing lifespan, maintaining a sense of well-being and improving one’s quality of life.
According to the American Medical Association, 43% of women and 31% of men in the U.S. suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction. Research studies are beginning to recognize sexual function changes associated with stress. Stress can have tangible effects on our reproductive system. It disrupts sex hormones, which can lead to sexual dysfunction and decreased sex drive in both women and men. Of course, one must also consider other possible causes of sexual dysfunction that are not stress-related, such as vascular disease, nerve damage, prescription medication, and chronic medical disorders.
Men and women view sex differently.
This difference can sometimes lead to stress in a relationship between a man and a woman. John Gray, in his book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus in the Bedroom, makes a valid point that Men have sex to relax; women have to be relaxed to desire sex. If a woman wants a man to forget all of the stress that he has experienced in a day, sex at the end of the day will most likely erase all of his stress; even if it is only temporary, it is a welcomed relief. However, if a man approaches a woman at the end of a stressful day and thinks that encouraging her to have sex will make her feel better, he may be sadly mistaken. She may see this gesture as being insensitive and it may only heighten her stress an frustration.
Understanding how stress affects sex hormones can help ease the tension that arises because of sexual dysfunction. Communication during times of stress is crucial to prevent getting sexual signals crossed during stressful times.
When an individual is stressed, reproduction is an unneeded function that the body wants to avoid. The body uses several mechanisms to ensure that reproduction does not take place. Stress affects fertility at every level of the reproductive system. Cortisol and hormones that stimulate cortisol production inhibit the processes needed for reproduction. Ovulation is inhibited by endorphins and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which are released during stress.
Cortisol blocks hormones produced in the pituitary gland, follicular stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). FSH and LH stimulate egg production and ovulation in the ovary and sperm production in men, which are necessary for reproduction. The biochemistry of how chronic stress affects our reproductive system is not yet completely understood. However, it is clear that several important body systems are disrupted the result of which can lead to infertility and sexual dysfunction.
The endocrine and nervous systems, which are important for sexual functioning, are affected by stress. Stress affects both the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, which control the release of sex hormones. The effect of stress disrupts sexual hormonal balance vital for sexual and reproductive functioning. At the level of the ovary and testicle, cortisol suppresses estrogen and progesterone in women and testosterone in men. Cortisol affects reproduction at many levels to decrease the possibility of reproduction during stressful times.
The body’s obsession with preventing reproduction is further reinforced by the sympathetic nervous system causing decreased blood flow to the reproductive organs. Decreased blood flow leads to difficulty with the implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus. This decrease in blood flow can also decrease sexual arousal. Under normal conditions, several hormones act together, creating the balance needed for sexual functioning.
These hormones include estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, oxytocin, prolactin, DHEA (the precursor for testosterone and estrogen), and thyroid hormones. Chronic stress increases cortisol production, while DHEA production decreases. Testosterone and estrogen are derived from DHEA. Consequently, stress also reduces the level of these two sex hormones, fundamentally altering sexual and reproductive function. For more information about stress and sexual dysfunction be sure to pick up a copy of our book, The Stress Connection by Drs. Eldred and Ava Taylor.
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