As a women's health advocate and nutrition coach, I take a strong stand for alternative and natural tools to help women heal their bodies and feel well in themselves. But the conversation has focused on calorie counting and weight loss for too long. A major underlying desire for women is simply that: a desire for more desire.
According to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association's classification and diagnostic tool, lack of desire -- and the related anxiety it causes -- is the most common sexual complaint among women. This condition, classified in the DSM-5 as "hypoactive sexual desire disorder," can include a lack of sexual desire that causes distress, disinterest or an inability to achieve orgasm when orgasm was once easy. And orgasm, when accessible, is one of the best healing tools a woman -- and a couple -- can use to boost her vitality and health. We want our desire back -- and contrary to popular belief, a female Viagra is not the answer.
You may think this epidemic is affecting older women on the verge of middle age, but the evidence shows young women are just as susceptible to this crippling lack of desire. A broad study of 31,000 American women published in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2008 found that about 43 percent of women reported sexual problems. This lack of desire can cause distress and anxiety, and is linked to depression.
You can hack your life and body for more energy, weight loss and boosted brain productivity, but can you hack female desire? Can a woman naturally boost her libido and reclaim the juicy mojo associated with youth, vigor and vitality? In short, yes. Here's how:
1. Make over your medicine cabinet.
The hormonal dance that is female desire involves more partners than your grandma's square dance troupe, and is just as confusing as a caller's directions. Birth control pills that contain estrogen and progesterone, for one, can be a root cause of low libido. These synthetic hormones diminish our pituitary hormones, which suppresses not only our ovarian function (why we don't get pregnant), but also testosterone production. For women, sexual desire, sensitivity to sexual touch and ability to reach orgasm are all driven in part by our testosterone levels. When we experience a drop, it's hard to get hot.
German researchers published a 2010 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine that found birth control pills significantly decrease levels of circulating testosterone, which has a huge impact on sexual desire. The result is diminished interest and enjoyment of sex. Some OB-GYNs will help guide their patients through a "drug holiday" to balance their natural hormone levels, which can take time and may result in mood and weight changes as your testosterone and other hormone levels naturally increase.
Antidepressants can also mess with our hormones, causing more reason to panic. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors -- a common class of antidepressants -- have been linked to bleeding in the gut, where 90 percent of your serotonin is produced. That, in turn, has an effect on testosterone levels, and therefore your libido and confidence. Isn't that ironic? This cycle can put women in a depressed, anxious state, where sex loses its appeal completely. What's more, we lose the ability to reach orgasm, one of the most healing and hormonally balancing mechanisms of the female body.
Some doctors will recommend trying a different antidepressant, reducing the dosage or even eliminating the prescription to help patients kick start their body's natural desire. This process can take time and lead to other side effects, and should be undertaken with great care and support. I recommend getting a complete blood test array to check your hormone levels, and any vitamin or mineral deficiencies that could be underlying causes of unbalanced biochemistry.
If you've been diagnosed with leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or any other gut or bacterial imbalance, healing your digestive system will go a long way in reigniting your desire. Antibiotic overuse has been shown to damage the gut lining, resulting in a decreased ability for this "second brain" to produce and store healthy levels of serotonin.
2. Revamp your diet.
Hormones don't operate in a vacuum. Everything you do, think and eat affects these building blocks of desire. Blood sugar, insulin and sex hormones are more closely linked than most of us know.
Sugar, for one, kills testosterone. Insulin resistance, caused by a diet high in refined carbohydrates such as white flour, sugar and alcohol, drives down testosterone in both men and women. Both sex drive and function take a hit when blood sugar levels are high. The result can be erectile dysfunction, which can affect the clitoris as well as the penis.
Sugar can also sap your energy. High-glycemic carbohydrates spike your blood sugar, leading to insulin overproduction to pull your blood sugar back down. The roller coaster of low, then high, then low blood sugar results in fatigue, which is one reason why a big pasta dinner with wine knocks you out of the mood. High sugar consumption also leads to decreased orexin, a neurotransmitter that regulates arousal and wakefulness. With less of it, you'll feel more like snoring than snogging.
Sugar stresses the body, too. It's the most inflammatory food around, which leads to physical stress in every aspect of your body and mind. High insulin levels will elevate cortisol, a main stress hormone. Chronic high cortisol leads to muscle breakdown, fat storage and squashed libido. Not a sweet picture, right?
Balancing your hormones could be as simple as changing your dinner plans. Food forms your hormones, metabolism and ultimately, your desire. Here are my top desire diet recommendations:
-- Follow a low-sugar diet by choosing fresh fruit over sugar and dried fruits, avoiding fruit juices and skipping the booze for a few weeks.
-- To repair gut health, improve serotonin production and reduce anxiety, try taking probiotics and eating naturally fermented foods that are rich in wild probiotics, such as raw sauerkraut, kimchi and unsweetened kefir.
3. Seek pleasure.
To restart desire, you can't just work on the biological level, you must also rekindle the capacity of your mechanical and physical body. Many women aren't as knowledgeable about their body's abilities and geography as they need to be to fully own their libido.
Masturbation is a missing ingredient in your desire (and weight loss) plan. Well, not just masturbation, but anything that brings you sincere physical pleasure that also balances your hormones. And arousal and orgasm are most easily achieved through masturbation, especially if you're single or in a sexless relationship.
According to the 2009 University of Michigan study, orgasm helps the body release oxytocin, the "love and bonding" hormone. Oxytocin release lowers cortisol, the main stress hormone chronically elevated in many women that can lead to stress eating and weight loss resistance. In other words, higher levels of oxytocin make us happy and keep those emotionally-triggered food cravings for sugars, cheese and other "happy foods" at bay.
In my book, " Women, Food, And Desire," I tell the story of a client who wasn't dating and wasn't masturbating. She had also been suffering tummy trouble for years, and worked a very stressful job. She was tired of the bloating, gas and the dreaded "muffin top" that wouldn't budge. I took her to Babeland, a clean, well-lit place for sex toys, and we talked with a knowledgeable staff member who helped her pick out a vibrator. After a couple of weeks of self-exploration, she noticed a marked difference in her digestion. (And she certainly had a nice spring in her step.)
You don't need to be an expert or have your own personal red room of pain to find pleasure: Your own digits are ready to help you begin at home. Oxytocin levels are usually increased simply through the physical stimulation of the clitoris, vagina, cervix and breasts. So even if you don't reach climax, you'll still be releasing this powerful neurotransmitter.
Another way to get started? Daydream! Another study reveals that sexy daydreams release testosterone in women. So when you read erotic fiction or watch any kind of porn that excites you, your body will begin anticipating a sexual encounter, which naturally raises your libido. Babeland's website has some great options for the desire seeker.
4. Don't fall for outdated myths.
Since Eve picked that apple in the Garden of Eden, women's bodies and sexual freedom have been the focus of contempt, subjugation, and emotional and physical restriction. Discriminatory laws, often based on religious arguments, are used to control women's bodies, reproduction and dress, and to violate women's rights all over the world.
In short, it can be scary, sacrilegious and sinful to be a fully expressed, desirous woman. Even when we don't personally live in a culture that blatantly restricts women's behavior, we can still be made to believe that being a woman is dangerous, and sex is unsafe. So we shut our natural desires down in order to remain safe, connected to our family, religion and culture of origin, and out of the dangerous "slut shaming" spotlight of our modern age.
Gender stereotypes have had the side effect of negatively influencing scientific research, and have led researchers to mislabel women as timid, focused on procreation above satisfaction and designed for monogamy. In reality, female desire and sexuality is not the rational, civilized, limited force it has been made out to be. In fact, human and animal studies show that the female body and libido respond to a wider variety of visual and fantasy stimuli than males, and that we chase and downright want sex in greater quantities than previously thought.
While female sexuality can be labeled as "more complicated" than men's, what we now know about the interplay between nutrition, stress, the effects of prescription drugs and cultural stigma is leading to a revolution in removing the blocks between us and our deserved desires.
Alexandra Jamieson is a functional nutrition coach, chef and mom. She was the co-creator of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Super Size Me" and authored the "self-health" book "Women, Food & Desire," published in January 2015 by Gallery Books. Alex has been seen on Oprah, The Today Show, Martha Stewart Living, CNN, Fox News, USA Today and People magazine. She offers remarkably sane -- and tasty -- advice on how to detox, live healthfully and feel fantastic. She lives in Brooklyn, where she juggles, somewhat gracefully, raising her 8-year-old son, trying new gluten-free recipes, running her company and riding her bicycle to the food co-op. Alex is accredited through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Columbia University Teacher's College and the American Association of Drugless Practitioners.