Too Stressed for Sex?

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The Physical Reaction

Researchers trying to tease out the complex interaction between stress and desire have found that everyday hassles and upsets can wreak havoc with hormones. Cortisol, a hormone secreted during stressful situations, is essentially a chemical messenger that tells your brain you're under siege. As it goes up, levels of testosterone, which fuels libido in both men and women, may go down, according to Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Stanford University and author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping .

Men's libidos may be less affected by stress than women's because they have about 20 times more testosterone than women do to start with -- way more than they need to feel amorous, especially when they're young. So even if your spouse's sex drive takes a big hit from stress, chances are he's hardly running on empty. Men's testosterone levels do drop about 10 percent each decade after 50, causing about one in 10 between the ages of 50 and 60 to suffer from low testosterone levels, which can cause diminished interest in sex.

It's far less clear how much damage a stress-induced testosterone drop does to women. Studies have shown that women with abnormally low levels of testosterone suffer from low sex drives. But researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, who followed 326 women between the ages of 35 to 47 for four years and measured their hormone levels every eight months found that women who reported decreased libido had testosterone levels similar to those with normal sexual desire. The researchers, who reported their findings this past March, did find there is some evidence of a testosterone-desire connection, however: Women who had the greatest variation in testosterone levels -- a condition that could be triggered by stress -- were four times more likely to report decreased libido.

Continued on page 4:  A Testosterone Solution?

 

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