SCIENCE

Sex Hormones and Your Sex Life

12 August, 2021

Sex hormones are like the airport tarmac workers waving orange batons around. They regulate sexual development and reproduction, body weight — even hair, bone and muscle growth. They also have a little something to do with your sex drive. Two biggies are estrogen and progesterone.

Most estrogen comes from the ovaries, but the adrenal glands and fat cells make smaller contributions. Estrogen plays a major role in sexual development and menstruation. Typically, sex drive is highest when estrogen levels are high, and progesterone is low. But exactly how and why hormones influence desire isn’t the same for every woman. Progesterone helps regulate your menstrual cycle and gets the uterus ready for a baby. When you’re ovulating (a mature egg is released from your ovary and travels down the fallopian tube into the uterus), progesterone levels rise and sex drive lowers. Yet, some women report a higher sex drive with higher progesterone levels. Track it against your cycle to determine what holds true for you.

Wait, what? You came here to read about sex – not babies. Sex and reproduction are, of course, intimately linked. Female sex hormones fluctuate with our menstrual cycle, which is all related to dropping an egg for potential fertilization. Sex for the sake of sex is amazing, but our sexual drive and function is linked to these sex hormones linked to our reproductive cycle – even if reproduction is not a goal.

Sex for the sake of sex is amazing, but our sexual drive and function is linked to these sex hormones linked to our reproductive cycle – even if reproduction is not a goal.

Other interesting hormone-related changes that occur during ovulation: Your temperature might rise slightly. Your face gets flushed from blood vessels dilating due to higher estrogen levels. The brain changes and actually grows in size. Women may notice better spatial awareness right after their period, and they reportedly communicate better right before their period. Imagination, perception and memory also fluctuate with the ebb and flow of the menstrual cycle.  

Here’s something else interesting. Many studies have found people say women are more desirable when they’re ovulating as opposed to menstruating. The Lap Dancer Study analyzed tips from lap dancers at different stages of their menstrual cycles. Women ovulating averaged $75 more per shift than those on their menstrual cycles. (You cannot make this up.)

Two other major sex hormones are follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and Luteinizing hormone (LH). So FHS and LH go from the brain to the blood and eventually reach the ovaries. There, they stimulate the growth of eggs. On average, women make about 30-35 eggs per day. Each egg is in a follicle, or shell. Side note, these hormones also cause a rise in estrogen.  

During menopause, the body gradually stops making female sex hormones altogether. The menstrual cycle stops and exactly one year after that, a woman is menopausal. Technically speaking, menopause is actually one day.  

Sex hormones change drastically during pregnancy too. Estrogen increases steadily during pregnancy and peaks in the third trimester. Some attribute the rapid rise of estrogen in the first trimester to morning sickness. Progesterone primes the uterus to become hospitable for baby and triggers your joints and ligaments to loosen to help get baby out when the time comes. Fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone also majorly impact your sex drive during pregnancy. Some women report being extra in the mood while others have no interest at all, and many others report extreme ebbs and flows. And postpartum, progesterone and estrogen plummet, while other hormones kick in to help with things like milk production and bonding with baby. If sex hormones are like airport tarmac workers, then picture pregnancy as a time when they work extreme overtime coupled with erratic behavior. It’s a wild ride.

Lastly, there’s testosterone, which is typically associated with men but the female body makes it too, just way less. (Men also have estrogen and progesterone.) Women use testosterone to create a form of estrogen called estradiol — a growth hormone for the reproductive organs. Both estrogen and testosterone play a role in sex drive, and higher levels of testosterone can increase libido. That feeling of lust, the urge to get busy, is influenced by these hormones and has a lot to do with our evolutionary drive to reproduce.

Outside the hormones responsible for sexual development and reproduction, hormones play a leading role in our romantic lives as well. Attempts to define love and attraction often map back to the body’s feel-good hormones - dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin and serotonin. Studies have shown these hormones appear at higher levels when people are showed a picture of someone they are in love with or deeply attracted to. That feeling of all-consuming, euphoric, ‘can’t eat, can’t sleep’ kind of love – science says that’s hormones. Hormones are also released during sex. When you orgasm, your brain releases reward hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins and prolactin. Orgasms have many mental and physical benefits, including that sweet release of happy hormones.

While there are 50 total hormones in the human body, sex hormones are mostly dedicated to your sexual development and reproductive functions, while others influence mood, desire, pleasure and more. Many have a lot to do with your interest and enjoyment of sex. Call it hormones, call it lust or love, when you’re in the moment, all that matters is you.

Call it hormones, call it lust or love, when you’re in the moment, all that matters is you.

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