Alternative Medicine Treatments for Female Sexual Dysfunction
If you have persistent, recurrent problems with sexual response or desire — and if these problems are making you distressed or straining your relationship with your partner — what you're experiencing is known medically as female sexual dysfunction.
Female sexual dysfunction isn't uncommon — many women experience problems with sexual function at some point in their lives. Female sexual dysfunction can be a lifelong problem, or it can happen later in life after you've experienced a period of satisfactory functioning.
Female sexual dysfunction has many possible symptoms and causes. Fortunately, they're almost all treatable. Communicating your concerns and understanding your body and its normal response to sexual activity are important steps toward gaining sexual satisfaction.
You can develop female sexual dysfunction at any age, but sexual problems often happen when your hormones are in flux — for example, after having a baby or during menopause. Sexual concerns may also occur with major illness, such as cancer or cardiovascular disease.
Your problems might be classified as female sexual dysfunction if you experience one or more of the following and you're distressed about it:
- Your desire to have sex is low or absent.
- You can't maintain arousal during sexual activity, or you don't become aroused despite a desire to have sex.
- You cannot experience an orgasm.
- You have pain during sexual contact.
Women with sexual concerns most often benefit from a combined treatment approach that addresses medical as well as emotional issues. Occasionally, there's a specific medical solution — using vaginal estrogen therapy, for example, or switching from one antidepressant medication to another. More often, behavioral treatments — such as couples therapy and stress management — are needed to address the cause of female sexual dysfunction. And sometimes, a combination approach works best.
Nonmedical treatment for female sexual dysfunction
You can improve your sexual health by enhancing communication with your partner and making healthy lifestyle choices.
- Talk and listen. Some couples never talk about sex, but open and honest communication with your partner can make a world of difference in your sexual satisfaction. Even if you're not used to communicating about your likes and dislikes, learning to do so and providing feedback in a nonthreatening manner can set the stage for greater sexual intimacy.
- Practice healthy lifestyle habits. Avoid excessive alcohol. Drinking too much will blunt your sexual responsiveness. Also, stop smoking and start exercising. Cigarette smoking restricts blood flow throughout your body, and less blood reaching your sexual organs means decreased sexual arousal and orgasmic response. Regular aerobic exercise can increase your stamina, improve your body image and elevate your mood, helping you feel more romantic, more often. Finally, don't forget to make time for leisure and relaxation. Learning to relax amid the stresses of your daily life can enhance your ability to focus on the sexual experience and attain better arousal and orgasm.
- Seek counseling. Talk with a counselor or therapist specializing in sexual and relationship problems. Therapy often includes education about how to optimize your body's sexual response, ways to enhance intimacy with your partner, and recommendations for reading materials or couples exercises. With a therapist's help, you may gain a better understanding of your sexual identity, beliefs and attitudes; relationship factors including intimacy and attachment; communication and coping styles; and your overall emotional health.
Medical treatment for female sexual dysfunction
Effectively treating sexual dysfunction often requires addressing an underlying medical condition or hormonal change that's affecting your sexuality.
Treating female sexual dysfunction tied to an underlying medical condition might include:
- Adjusting or changing medications that have sexual side effects
- Treating thyroid problems or other hormonal conditions
- Optimizing treatment for depression or anxiety
- Trying strategies recommended by your doctor to help with pelvic pain or other pain problems
Treating female sexual dysfunction linked to a hormonal cause might include:
- Estrogen therapy. Localized estrogen therapy — in the form of a vaginal ring, cream or tablet — can improve sexual function in a number of ways, including improving vaginal tone and elasticity, increasing vaginal blood flow, enhancing lubrication, and having a positive effect on brain function and mood factors that impact sexual response.
Androgen therapy. Androgens include male hormones, such as testosterone. Testosterone is important for sexual function in women as well as men, although testosterone occurs in much lower amounts in a woman. Androgen therapy for sexual dysfunction is controversial. Some studies show a benefit for women who have low testosterone levels and develop sexual dysfunction; other studies show little or no benefit.
Testosterone may be given as a cream that you apply to your skin. Sometimes, testosterone is given as a pill in combination with estrogen. Side effects, such as acne, excess body hair (hirsutism), enlargement of the clitoris, and mood or personality changes, are possible. Because long-term effects of testosterone therapy in women aren't known, you should be closely monitored by your doctor.
Hormonal therapies won't resolve sexual problems that have causes unrelated to hormones. Because the issues surrounding female sexual dysfunction are usually complex and multifaceted, even the best medications are unlikely to work if other emotional or social factors remain unresolved.
Other possible medical treatments
More research is needed before these agents might be recommended for treatment of female sexual dysfunction:
- Tibolone. Tibolone is a synthetic steroid drug currently used in Europe and Australia for treatment of postmenopausal osteoporosis. In one randomized trial, postmenopausal women taking the drug experienced an improvement in overall sexual function and a reduction in personal distress compared with postmenopausal women taking estrogen, but the effect was small. Due to concerns over increased risk of breast cancer and stroke in women taking tibolone, the drug isn't approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the U.S.
- Phosphodiesterase inhibitors. This group of medications has proven successful in treating erectile dysfunction in men, but the drugs don't work nearly as well in treating female sexual dysfunction. At best, studies looking into the effectiveness of these drugs in women have yielded inconsistent results. One drug, sildenafil (Viagra) may prove beneficial for some women who experience sexual dysfunction as a result of taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of drugs used to treat depression.
More research is needed, but promising alternatives to traditional therapies for improving sexual satisfaction include these Eastern approaches:
- Mindfulness. This type of meditation is based on being mindful, or having an increased awareness and acceptance of living in the present moment. You focus on what you experience during meditation, such as the flow of your breath. You can observe your thoughts and emotions but let them pass without judgment. Some research shows that mindfulness practiced during the course of group therapy improved many aspects of sexual response and reduced personal distress in women with desire and arousal disorders.
- Acupuncture. Acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely thin needles in your skin at strategic points on your body. Traditional Chinese theory explains acupuncture as a technique for balancing the flow of energy or life force — known as qi or chi (chee) — believed to flow through pathways (meridians) in your body. By inserting needles into specific points along these meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will rebalance. Acupuncture may have positive effects on women with sexual pain disorders. Another possible therapy is acupuncture to improve libido in women with low desire, although this area has yet to be rigorously studied.
- Yoga. During yoga, you perform a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises to promote a more flexible body and a calm mind. Certain subsets of yoga aim to channel the body's sexual energy and improve sexual functioning. Very little data exist on the benefits of yoga on sexual functioning. However, the practice of yoga is associated with improved psychological well-being and overall health.