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Which Hormone is Principally Responsible for the Sex Drive in Women?

Women’s sexual desire fluctuates naturally and peaks during times of excitement in their relationships. Distressing problems with libido, arousal or reaching orgasm are called female sexual dysfunction.

Your ovaries, adrenal glands and fat cells produce a variety of sex hormones including estrogen, progesterone and small amounts of testosterone. Women’s libido can also be affected by lifestyle factors.

Estrogen

Estrogen is a female hormone that helps regulate the menstrual cycle, controls development of female sex organs and thickens the lining of the uterus in preparation for pregnancy. There are three types of estrogens–estradiol, estrone and estriol–and they are found throughout the body, but they are produced primarily in the ovaries. Estrogen plays a crucial role in the structural differences between male and female bodies, including a smaller and wider pelvis, narrower shoulders and more curved and contoured limbs. It also influences the development of breasts, pubic and underarm hair, and skin.

As women approach the onset of menopause, called perimenopause, their levels of estrogen begin to drop. This can lead to pain during intercourse, vaginal dryness and mood changes. Estrogen can be replaced by estrogen replacement therapy.

While ovarian steroids, such as estradiol and progesterone, may modulate sexual desire, the identity of the critical steroid(s) remains unclear. Studies have shown that salivary estradiol and progesterone peak at midcycle, but only circulating estradiol correlates with an increase in a woman’s sexual desire measured two days later.

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As for the sex drive in men, testosterone is more directly involved with sperm production and reproductive function. Testosterone also helps control the menstrual cycle and may play a part in sex drive. Men’s testosterone levels are high during adolescence and early adulthood, when sex drive is at its highest.

Progesterone

A woman’s ovaries, adrenal glands and fat cells produce progesterone. This female sex hormone helps initiate sexual development and regulates the menstrual cycle. Like estrogen, it plays a key role in the libido. Progesterone levels peak at ovulation, but also decline when you reach menopause. It is not entirely clear why these hormone fluctuations impact a woman’s libido.

Studies of women using completely reliable birth control have found that libido tends to peak during the mid-cycle, suggesting a link between ovarian hormones and libido. Women using hormonal contraceptives are unlikely to experience this fluctuation because the synthetic hormones used in these medications prevent ovulation by blocking the release of LH and FSH.

Both estrogen and progesterone contribute to the libido, but the latter appears to have a more direct effect. The same study also showed that a woman’s libido declines when progesterone levels are too low. This may be because of the way that progesterone modulates estrogen and testosterone.

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Testosterone is another male sex hormone that influences both the libido and fertility. It is produced in the ovaries and adrenal glands, and is required to make estrogen. Testosterone levels also peak during puberty and then begin to decline throughout the rest of a man’s life.

While these hormones do directly influence a person’s libido, they also have a number of indirect effects. For example, a lack of desire can lead to a low quality of life and an increased risk for depression and fatigue. It can also have an impact on the health of a woman’s vulva and vagina, leading to heavy periods, painful menstrual cycles and fibrocystic breasts. This is why it is important for a woman to seek treatment for her sex drive problems. Bioidentical hormone therapy is an excellent option for many women with low libido.

Testosterone

Although testosterone is often thought of as a male sex hormone, it also plays a role in female sexual desire. Testosterone is made in the ovaries, and like estrogen and progesterone, it has a key part to play in a woman’s sex drive. Women’s libido usually hits its peak around the time of ovulation. It also helps maintain bone strength, muscle mass and energy levels in healthy women. But as women age, their testosterone levels naturally decrease. By the time they reach 45, the level of the hormone can be halved. Low testosterone levels can affect the sensitivity in the vagina and clitoris, which may have an impact on libido.

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Testosterone’s role in the sex drive may be complicated by the fact that it also interacts with other hormones, especially estradiol. The two hormones have similar peaks in the menstrual cycle, and it’s difficult to determine which hormone has a more direct effect on a woman’s sexual desire. But it’s been found that a higher dosage of the androgen can increase both sexual desire and arousal, and a number of studies have confirmed that transdermal (absorbed through the skin) testosterone is an effective treatment for postmenopausal women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder.

However, the conventional wisdom is that high testosterone correlates with a greater interest in sex with a partner, while lower levels are associated with solitary sexual desire. But a study by Sherwin and colleagues in 1985 showed that ovarian steroids, not adrenal androgens, modulated women’s sexual desire. The investigators studied premenopausal women before and after they underwent bilateral oophorectomy for benign health conditions, which significantly decreased sexual desire. The researchers attributed this to the removal of the androgens that help control women’s reproductive hormones. The results backed up earlier research that suggested adrenal androgens were unable to maintain a woman’s sexual drive.