Hormones Affecting Sexual Desire

By OBOS Sexuality & Relationships Contributors | January 8, 2015

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.

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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:

Menstrual cycle

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.

The Pill and other hormonal birth control methods

Some hormonal birth control methods including the Pill, the patch (e.g., Ortho Evra), injectable contraceptives (e.g., Depo-Provera), and the vaginal ring (NuvaRing), suppress the usual cyclical nature of hormones and may affect desire and sexual functioning.

Some women have more desire, while other women experience less desire, orgasm less easily, and/or experience vaginal dryness. The specific effects of these methods vary greatly among individual women.

Pregnancy

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.

Nursing

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.

Adrenal or ovary removal 

Either adrenal or ovary removal (oophorectomy) surgery may result in a dramatic decrease in sexual interest and frequency of orgasm, in part due to a reduction of testosterone. This is one of many reasons for avoiding unnecessary removal of the ovaries or adrenals.