Understanding Your Sex Drive

By Kathleen Doheny. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

When it comes to your love life, the two best-known sex hormones — testosterone and estrogen — get all the play. However, they're not the only important sex hormones we produce. In fact, estrogen and testosterone provide the fuel, but not the whole fire, according to experts speaking at a “Science of Sex” seminar hosted by the Endocrine Society in February 2014.

Here’s what you need to know to put the science of hormones to work in your love life:

Misconceptions About Testosterone

"For men, the biggest misconception is that more testosterone is always better," says Bradley Anawalt, MD, chief of medicine at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, Wash. Many men think if their low normal or even middle normal, getting extra will somehow improve sexual function and erections.

If a man has very low levels, there may be some improvement in erections when he takes testosterone supplements. "But that is the exception, not the rule," says Anawalt, explaining that low normal or middle normal levels probably won't have noticeable effects on erections.

What’s more, testosterone supplements have been linked with doubling the heart attack risk in men over age 65 and in men under 65 with a history of heart disease, according to a report in science journal PLOS ONE. The Endocrine Society has also called for new research to look at the risks and benefits.

Testosterone for women with low libido has also been suggested. ''It's not all about more testosterone for women for [improving] sex drive," says Nanette Santoro, MD, professor and E. Stewart Taylor chair of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado at Denver, Colo.

Though testosterone levels may improve sex drive and orgasm in some women, such as those whose ovaries have been removed, it is actually the quality of the relationship and a loving partner that impacts a woman's sex drive most, she says.

What’s the “Trust Me” Hormone?

One lesser known hormone that plays a big role is oxytocin. Known as the cuddle (or “trust me”) hormone, oxytocin may affect sex drive and orgasm potential, especially in women. "Its biggest role is to induce contractions [during labor]," says Santoro. “Levels increase in blood circulation during orgasm."

This hormone has different effects on men and women, Anawalt says. It inspires women to cuddle — with a newborn, for example, or their romantic partner. In men, it's more aptly named the ''soul mate hormone'' based on several small studies in which scientists gave men a dose of oxytocin and watched their behavior. "Give oxytocin to a man in a monogamous relationship and expose him to other attractive females, and he may inch away," Anawalt says.

However, one study published in Emotion has found that too much oxytocin may cause you to overreact in social situations, such as misinterpreting friendly conversation at a party as a come-on.

Prolactin, another hormone, also gets in on the action. "Prolactin plays an important role in slowing down desire," Anawalt says. As prolactin production increases during orgasm, the feeling of being satisfied sets in, he says.  

Next Steps

Men and women may focus too much on erection as physical evidence that all is working well, experts say. Anawalt encourages a different approach.

  • "For men and for women, the eyes are important sex organs," Anawalt says. Visual prompts are important for both men and women. (So, that trite advice about wearing sexy lingerie, or ditching the ratty boxers in favor of sleek briefs, has a scientific basis after all.)
  • To ensure a healthy level of oxytocin, try heart-thumping exercise followed by a deep massage, Anawalt says. “You’re setting the hormonal stage for a romantic evening." The rest is up to you. 

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