What You Should Know About Sexual Health, According to Experts

by JJ Virgin on June 13, 2024

Sexual health is a critical but often overlooked part of happiness and well-being. This foundational pillar helps you embrace your sexuality, strengthen your relationships, and create a more profound sense of fulfillment.

Having some setbacks with your sexual health from time to time is normal, especially during transitional periods like menopause. These issues can be physical, like feeling pain during sex, or emotional, like anxiety, relationship troubles, or low libido. 

The primary issue for women across every age group is a lack of sexual desire. According to Dr. Lyndsey Harper, an OB-GYN and sexual medicine specialist, this is a struggle for 38% of women. About a quarter of women have low or non-existent arousal, and about 20% have difficulties with orgasm. What’s more, 70% of women face sexual pain at some point in life, with 20% experiencing chronic pain during penetrative sex.

You don’t have to resign yourself to those fates, nor do you have to accept a lack of intimacy. With the correct information, compassionate care, and a positive mindset, you can overcome these obstacles and open the door to improved well-being. 

What Is Sexual Health?

Sexual health involves feeling great in every aspect of your sexuality. It’s not just about the physical side of things; it’s also about how you feel emotionally, think about it mentally, and connect with others socially. 

“Sexual health encompasses a wide array of factors that contribute to a healthy and fulfilling sex life,” says Dr. Amy Killen, co-founder of the Human Optimization Project. “This includes not only your physical well-being but also your mental, emotional, and relationship health. Additionally, the environment around you plays a significant role in shaping your attitudes and experiences with sex.”

Killen goes on to say that what matters most is whether you feel happy, content, and satisfied with your sex life. 

“When all these elements are in harmony, you’re likely to feel positive about your sex life,” she says. “However, it’s important to recognize that what this looks like can vary greatly from one person to another.”

The Connection Between Sexual Health and Overall Health

Sexual health is an essential part of your overall well-being and can give you insight into how your mental and physical health are doing. For instance, your sexual health can take a hit from issues like insulin resistance (a precursor for type 2 diabetes) or heart disease. Sometimes, bedroom troubles can be the first sign of these health problems.1  Likewise, chronic stress, anxiety, and depression can mess with your sexual contentment.2 

Despite how widespread these issues are, sexual health often gets left out of the conversation in women’s issues. Dr. Harper points out a significant gap in how the medical world and society deal with sexual health. 

“Do women want to have sex?” Dr. Harper asks. “Do women enjoy having sex? Do women have orgasms when they have sex? These things have all been ignored both within health care and society. Women have come to a place of power, a place where we have a platform and a place where we can really start to raise these issues in the medical community and in society at large.”

The issue, she believes, stems from a lack of discussion or training about these issues among doctors. This leaves many women feeling alone, trying to figure things out without much help or information. She notes that getting honest about these issues can squash the stigma and make it easier for women to speak up and get the right care and understanding from their healthcare providers. 

How Sexual Health Changes Over Your Lifespan  

Dr. Killen likens women’s sexual health to experiencing various “seasons” or phases, each transforming a woman’s sexual well-being in unique ways.

Pregnancy and the postpartum period bring significant shifts due to hormonal fluctuations and how you experience intimacy can change dramatically. During pregnancy, some women may experience heightened libido and increased sensitivity in erogenous zones, while others may feel discomfort or decreased desire due to hormonal fluctuations, fatigue, or physical changes such as nausea, breast tenderness, or weight gain.

Similarly, in the postpartum period, factors such as the physical and emotional toll of childbirth, hormonal shifts, fatigue from caring for a newborn, and changes in body image can affect intimacy levels.

Then, perimenopause typically kicks off by your late 40s. This brings about symptoms colloquially referred to as menopause, but the actual years-long transition is known as perimenopause. The hormonal changes at this time can cause the hallmark symptoms like hot flashes and low libido, and increase the risk of health issues like: 

  • Fibroids: Non-cancerous growths that develop in or around the uterus, often causing symptoms like heavy menstrual bleeding, pelvic pain, and fertility issues.
  • Endometriosis: A painful condition where tissue similar to the lining inside the uterus grows outside of it, leading to symptoms like severe menstrual cramps and chronic pain.3  

Balancing these symptoms with life’s demands, from careers and raising kids to looking after aging parents, can feel like a juggling act that leaves little time and energy for romance.

Transitioning into the postmenopausal phase comes with its own set of challenges, thanks to dropping estrogen levels and the end of the menstrual cycle. Symptoms like vaginal dryness, a dip in libido, and discomfort during sex are more common.4  But it’s also a time that can deepen the exploration of intimacy, free from pregnancy worries, highlighting the importance of adapting to new sexual health needs.

Hormonal ups and downs are big players here. The ebb and flow of estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormones around menopause can influence your libido and sexual function. Lower estrogen levels can make things uncomfortable and dampen desire, while changes in testosterone and thyroid hormones can mess with your libido and energy levels.5, 6  Even stress can throw a wrench in the works, affecting hormones like cortisol and DHEA, which are also part of the libido puzzle.7, 8 

Paying attention to these hormonal changes and getting the right advice and treatment, like hormone replacement therapy (HRT), can help smooth the bumps in this transformative journey. Recognizing and adapting to each “season” of sexual health underscores the importance of continuous care and self-discovery in achieving lasting well-being and fulfillment.

The Role of Diet and Fitness in Sexual Health

Choosing the right foods supports a healthier, happier sex life. Protein is the building block for hormone production, including those all-important sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone. Keeping these hormones in balance can support your libido, sexual function, and reproductive health.9 Optimal protein can also support muscle repair and growth, including your pelvic-floor muscles. Strong pelvic muscles enhance sexual satisfaction and control, making those intimate moments even better.10 

Protein also supports steady energy, curbs cravings, and helps you keep a healthy weight.11 By stabilizing blood-sugar levels, protein can support a steady mood and help you better manage stress.12 Specific proteins, including serotonin and dopamine, help build neurotransmitters that regulate mood. These chemicals in the brain influence feelings of happiness, pleasure, and libido.13 

Along with an eat-protein-first meal approach, a few specific nutrients can support your sexual health. Among them include:

  • Antioxidants: These nutrients, found in foods like berries, dark chocolate, and green tea, combat the damaging free radicals that can impair blood vessels and restrict blood flow to essential areas for sexual function.14 
  • B vitamins: Essential for nerve health and mood regulation, B vitamins help maintain hormone balance and reduce inflammation, which can impact blood flow and sexual function.15 Avocados, nuts, and seeds are excellent sources of B vitamins.
  • Vitamin E: Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, vitamin E is vital in hormone regulation and circulation, which are important for a healthy sex life.16 Almonds, spinach, and sweet potatoes are rich in vitamin E.
  • Zinc: This mineral is a cornerstone of hormone production, including testosterone, which influences libido and sexual health.17 Zinc also supports immune function and wound healing.18 Foods high in zinc include oysters, beef, and pumpkin seeds.
  • Magnesium: This mineral can enhance sexual health by reducing inflammation and supporting muscle and nerve function.19 Magnesium also helps control your body’s stress-response system; makes sex hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone; and converts thyroid hormone T4 into its active form, T3.20 Dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and seeds are smart magnesium-rich choices.

    A supplement also helps, but only if you choose the right kind. Many types of magnesium absorb poorly and can create digestive issues. Look for a chelated magnesium supplement like Magensium Body Calm that bypasses these issues and delivers high amounts of this mineral in every capsule. 

As well as a well-rounded diet, getting your fitness routine down can boost your sexual well-being, too. 

“Exercise is probably the number one thing that you can do to keep your sexual organs healthy and keep your brain healthy so that you want to have sex,” says Dr. Killen. 

She recommends resistance training, which boosts cardiovascular health and improves blood circulation. This means blood gets where it needs to go more efficiently, lighting up those areas essential for arousal and sexual function. 

My FREE Resistance Training Cheat Sheet outlines everything you need to get started, including home gym essentials, an 8-week workout plan, and a progress tracker to log your sets, reps, and weights with each workout. 

Exercise also boosts confidence and how you see your body, which are tightly linked to your libido. Plus, the endorphins (those feel-good hormones that release during a workout) make you feel great, boosting your sexual desire and overall mood. 

Taking Control of Your Sexual Well-being

Sexual health is a dynamic blend of physical, emotional, and psychological factors that develop and change across various life stages. Adapting to changes throughout your lifespan, during perimenopause and beyond, is vital for a fulfilling sexual life. 

Seeking professional guidance for hormonal imbalances and psychological factors, including HRT, is also fundamental for overcoming issues like decreased libido and discomfort. You never need to settle for a less-than-satisfying sexual life. 

Along with the right mindset, an eat-protein-first diet, consistent physical activity, and effective stress management can profoundly impact sexual well-being. 

Your mindset plays a crucial role in maintaining sexual health during menopause. Cultivating a positive mindset can positively influence your sexual well-being by reducing stress, enhancing intimacy with your partner, and promoting self-confidence. In Mindset Mastery: 20 Practices for Power and Purpose, I reveal simple ways to shift your mindset. These tools will support your sexual-health journey during menopause. 


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*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. Products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The views in this blog by JJ Virgin should never be used as a substitute for professional medical advice. Please work with a healthcare practitioner concerning any medical problem or concern.