We all have different sex drives, so what’s “normal” for you may not be for your best friend. Sexual desire can change daily, weekly, monthly, or even hourly.
Sexual desire is complex, and what turns you on is so individualized. Add stress, sleep disruption, and feeling connected to a partner in the mix, and there’s no single predictor of desire for anyone. But one thing is clear: your sex hormones play a huge role in helping—or keeping you from—getting in the mood.
Given that sex hormones shift throughout your cycle, it’s no wonder there are certain times of the month when you may feel more easily aroused and other times when your libido feels flatlined. Here’s all you need to know about sexual desire, the menstrual cycle, and how your hormones influence both.
Phases of the Menstrual Cycle and Sex Drive
The menstrual cycle has three main phases: the follicular phase, ovulation, and the luteal phase. Your period is actually the first part of the follicular phase, but for the sake of this article, we will consider your period as a fourth phase, since symptoms and hormones that come with your period can affect your sex drive as well.
Let’s look at each in more detail.
In the follicular phase, the first part of your cycle leading up to ovulation, estrogen and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) begin to rise. FSH is secreted by your pituitary gland to prepare the ovaries to release an egg during ovulation.
In the late follicular phase, energy levels and sexual desire increases for many—especially as you get closer to ovulation. It isn’t that you just may feel more mentally into the idea of sex, but physically you’re also ready as vaginal lubrication, engorged vaginal tissue, and heightened sensitivity all increase thanks to estrogen.
Ovulation is the midpoint (although this varies with each person) when a surge of estrogen triggers the secretion of luteinizing hormone (LH) to signal the release of an egg from your ovaries.
As an evolutionary adaptation, this shorter five to six-day ovulatory phase coincides with an increased drive for sex. Even if baby-making is not on your agenda, the sex hormones secreted during this time increases libido and even your ability to orgasm. There’s even been research behind this, with large studies showing that masturbation also peaks midcycle.
Cervical position also changes during ovulation. It’s higher and softer than at other times of the month, making certain sex positions more pleasurable than they would be during the other phases of your cycle.
Interestingly, despite all this behind-the-scenes physiology, some women may also feel less inclined to have sex because the concern about becoming pregnant interferes with desire. This may help explain increases in masturbation midcycle as seen in the above studies.
The final phase of your cycle, the luteal phase, starts right after ovulation and continues until your period begins. Estrogen rises, but less than in the follicular phase, and progesterone also increases during this phase.
Sex drive tends to be lower during this phase. You may need extra lube (thanks to higher progesterone levels), and it might be harder to orgasm. I’m not saying you won’t be into sex during this phase, but it’s not unusual if your interest comes and goes or you need a little extra help getting started.
The late luteal phase is also when PMS shows up with cramps, mood changes, and fatigue. Towards the end, estrogen and progesterone drop and trigger your period, taking libido down with them.
You may be aware that menstruation is technically the first part of your cycle, but your feelings about sex and desire can be very different during your period than later in the follicular phase. Once again, whether your period makes you want to have sex or crawl under the covers alone depends on the individual.
During the first day or so of the menstrual period, hormones remain very low. For some, the drop in progesterone provides relief. It allows estrogen and testosterone (yes, testosterone is also essential for people with cycles) to rise and boost sex drive. In some cases, women note more sexual arousal during their period than at ovulation.
I know I’m repeating myself, but there’s no right or wrong way to feel here. Some are into period sex, and others aren’t—both are valid and completely normal (I’ll get into some of the benefits of period sex below).
Tracking your cycle and sex drive is helpful for understanding your body and hormones and I dig into this and give step-by-step guidance on how to do this in my new book Is This Normal!
How Menstrual Cycle Hormones Impact Sex Drive
Hormones control your menstrual cycles, so their influence can also impact your sex drive. I touched on what hormones peak during each phase, but let’s dive into each a bit more:
Estrogen is the queen hormone for arousal. As I mentioned earlier, estrogen keeps vaginal tissues lubricated and plump, increases desire, and makes sex more pleasurable.
The peak in estrogen midcycle is thought to be the primary reason some women feel especially turned on right before ovulation. Levels of estradiol, one of the three primary forms of estrogen, spike more than 800 percent during this phase.
Progesterone keeps us calm, reduces PMS symptoms, and helps us sleep, but higher levels can adversely impact sex drive. When progesterone rises (as seen in the second half of your cycle), your sex drive may drop.
A study examining sex drive and the impact of sex hormones found that while estrogen was positively associated with day-to-day fluctuations in desire, progesterone did the opposite. This illustrates why hormone balance is essential for sex drive and arousal—if estrogen is low or even if the ratio of estrogen and progesterone is off, your sex drive can be impacted.
I can’t talk about sex drive and the menstrual cycle without mentioning testosterone. Testosterone is an androgen, which some may call a male sex hormone, but women and people with ovaries also make testosterone.
Testosterone also spikes midcycle, so it works with estrogen to boost sex drive and may even improve orgasms. Low testosterone levels are linked to low sex drive, but studies show mixed results when women were given testosterone therapy to enhance arousal. It’s more likely that the effect of estrogen and testosterone together helps with sex drive.
Sex During Your Period
If period sex is something you enjoy or are curious about, there’s no reason not to do it. Plus, there are a few plusses to consider:
If you notice less vaginal lubrication during your luteal phase, period sex may offer relief. For some, menstrual blood provides plenty of lubrication. Others may still need to add extra lube, at least for the first few days, until estrogen levels start to rise again.
Endorphins and Menstrual Cramps
Orgasms may help relieve menstrual cramps by triggering the same muscles that contract when you climax. The release after orgasm could help calm uterine contractions so you feel less pain. This works the same way whether you have a partner or not.
Your mood can also benefit from period sex (or really sex anytime) as orgasms also stimulate oxytocin (what some call the love hormone) and endorphins that make you feel good and help you connect with your partner.
Chances of Conception with Period Sex
One suggested reason people may feel aroused during their period is that the worry about getting pregnant is off the table. But here’s the thing: you can still get pregnant on your period. It’s rare, especially if you have a regular menstrual cycle and know when you ovulate, but it’s possible if ovulation occurs closer to your period than expected. If you don’t want to become pregnant, contraception is a good idea all cycle long.
Can Orgasms Helps with Mood and Menstrual Cycle
Orgasms don’t just help during your period; they can also benefit you anytime throughout your cycle.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps with mood and overall well-being. Orgasms could help your brain release more serotonin which could enhance mood and feeling relaxed (part of the reason it’s so easy to fall asleep after sex).
Better Menstrual Cycles
Orgasms could help with your menstrual cycle overall by reducing the length of your period and helping reduce pain from PMS symptoms, although there aren’t many studies to back this up.
Much more research is needed, but how often you have sex could impact your menstrual cycle. Some older studies suggest that having less sex is linked to irregular cycles. Of course, there could be many reasons, including hormone imbalance affecting your desire to have sex in the first place and causing irregular cycles.
How to Increase Sexual Desire Throughout Your Menstrual Cycle
I won’t pretend there’s one easy answer on increasing sexual desire throughout your menstrual cycle. It would take an entire book to examine all the complexities of arousal, sex, and hormones (which is why I wrote Is This Normal).
Outside influences that have nothing to do with your biology, like relationship status, life or work stress, or social support, are only some of the factors that can affect desire and arousal.
With all that in mind, if your hormones are out of sync, it will affect your sex drive. So the first thing to do for low sex drive is to work on hormone balance.
I have many articles detailing symptoms of testosterone, estrogen, or progesterone imbalance, with tips on how to address each. Each takes an individualized approach to get back into balance, but foundations include:
- Nutrient-dense foods.
- Appropriate physical activity.
- Sleep and rest.
- Stress and self-care support.
- Nurturing relationships.
- Encouraging gratitude.
Each of these influence hormone balance and sex drive. In my new book, Is This Normal I provide detailed checklists with step-by-step guidance to help you get back on track.
Remember that there is no one right way to experience sexual desire. Your baseline is your baseline, and some people just have lower or higher sex drives to begin with. But if you feel like your libido is exceptionally low, or you’ve noticed a change for your body, it may be worth taking a closer look at your hormones with a trusted provider.
KEEPING IT REAL, WHILE KEEPING YOU EDUCATED
Featuring a 28 day plan to take back your cycle and dozens of charts, checklists, and diagrams to help along the way.
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