Sex, Health, and an Introduction by Dr. Nicola Finley
We all know that sex “feels good.” But increasingly, science shows that sex has far greater and long-term effects that carry on beyond the bedroom. Scientists and physicians are coming to see how healthy sex is a core element in one’s quality of life, and therefore a key part of overall mental and physical health.
Moreover, this holds true across one’s entire adult lifespan. Integrative physician and intimacy expert Nicola Finley, MD., has broken new ground in expanding on these trends, and explains her findings in a report published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). We summarized some of her key findings on factors affecting sexual dysfunction below.
The Ubiquity of Sex-Related Problems Among Women
Finley found that about 40% of women will experience a sex-related health or psychological issue over the course of their lifetimes, yet many are unsure of what to do or where to turn.
A case example: Finley mentions the case of a 61-year-old female patient, “KS,” who was suffering from a variety of physical and mental ailments, including chronic stress, a dramatically lowered libido that was straining her marriage, and a lack of exercise that was lowering her overall health. This is actually sexual dysfunction.
An integrative approach: Finley deployed an integrative approach to treat KS. Instead of trying to treat each of the patient’s issues separately, Finley dealt with them jointly. She first had KS increase her exercise routines, which led to both greater energy levels and lower amounts of stress.
At the same time, she treated the sexual dysfunction of KS, which was in part due to sex-related vaginal pain, by recommending remedies such as sex toys, lubricants, and a pillow for back support during intercourse.
On Female Sexual dysfunction
What KS experienced is not uncommon for women, yet relatively few resources have been committed to dealing with these issues because talking about sexual dysfunction is considered taboo.
Finley notes that a great deal of effort, research, and investment have gone into developing solutions for Erectile Dysfunction (ED); this was done most effectively with the chemical sildenafil, commonly known as the “blue pill.”
Nowhere near the same amount of resources have gone into creating solutions for female sexual dysfunction. This is bad for women as a group, since there is a direct medical link between an enjoyable sex life and general mental and physical health. As a 2001 US Surgeon General report details:
“Sexual health is inextricably bound to both physical and mental health. Just as physical and mental health problems can contribute to sexual dysfunction and diseases, those dysfunctions and diseases can contribute to physical and mental health problems. Sexual health is not limited to the absence of disease or dysfunction, nor is its importance confined to just the reproductive years.”
Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder
In her research, Finley covers the prevalence of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) among women, which can be summed up as an unsatisfying sex life. This condition is characterized by a persistent absence of desire or openness to sex; it is tied to relatively high levels of distress, both emotional and psychological.
This invariably and negatively affects a woman’s primary romantic relationship. Physical traits of HSDD are apparent in reduced sexual desire, lowered arousal, inability to achieve climax, and/or pain experienced during sex. HSDD is also related to an overall poor state of health.
Sex and Menopause:
Women who have entered menopause may have particular challenges surrounding sex. These could include vaginal dryness, dyspareunia (pain during intercourse), impaired sexual arousal, and bleeding caused by sex. These symptoms are due to decreased estrogen levels and vulvovaginal atrophy (drying, thinning or inflammation of vaginal tissue).
Women do not simply have to “endure” this, though. Finley recommends either water or silicone-based lubricants as a pain remedy. Other treatments can include vaginal estrogen and vaginal dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) therapy, which other NCBI studies have confirmed to improve sexual function among women, particularly those who may have cancer.
Critical Factors: Diet, Exercise, Smoking, Drinking and Stress
Throughout the study, Finley establishes that a healthy lifestyle is a necessary part of a healthy sex life. As might be expected, exercise and a healthy diet improve sexual function in women. By contrast, habits such as smoking, drinking, and sedentary lifestyles negatively impact sexual function.
Very importantly, Finley also identifies chronic stress as having a negative effect on sexual function, and such stress is associated with more sexual problems and lower levels of overall sexual satisfaction.
Mindfulness and Yoga
An increasing number of women today are interested in natural approaches to wellness, relying more on spirituality, meditation, exercise, herbal remedies and other natural methods, instead of Western medicine or invasive surgeries. Finley notes how this trend can effectively treat sexual dysfunction in women. She gives particular emphasis to the concept of mindfulness, rooted in Buddhism and expressed in practices such as Yoga.
As Finley writes, “ Mindfulness and other forms of meditative practices have consistently been associated with improvement in attentional capacities and clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression. There is mounting evidence that mindfulness can be helpful in improving sexual well-being.
One goal of mindfulness is to improve awareness; this may address distraction, which can negatively affect sexual function, mood, and self-esteem.” Finley refers to Yoga as a special form of mindfulness that could have substantial positive impacts.
As she explains, “Yoga has been found to be significantly associated with improved psychological well-being and overall physical health… Yoga appears to be a nonpharmacological method of improving sexual functions in women. [It can] produce improvement in all 6 domains tested (desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, and pain).”
Sexual Function: an Important Part of a Holistic health Approach
Finley concludes her research by stating, “Continual sexual activity carries numerous health benefits throughout the lifespan: because sexual intimacy affects sexual desire necessary for ongoing healthy sexual interactions in human relationships, problems in any area of the sexual experience should be addressed as part of a holistic health assessment.”
Therefore, she suggests that sexual health and function be included in any overall assessment of a female patient’s health and that this is an area that doctors should be actively asking about, instead of waiting for questions from patients.