The transition leading up to and after menopause means a lot of changes to a woman’s body. Many of these changes affect sexuality and intimacy. However, there is actually quite a bit a woman can do to maintain her sexual health and sexual vitality throughout and after menopause. We encourage you to read more about the process of menopause to understand how the suggestions and techniques described below can best help you.
Technically, menopause is defined as the end (“pause”) of monthly bleeding or periods (“menses”). Although the cessation of menses often happens within months, the whole process of menopause can be much longer. Menopause is often accompanied by other symptoms like hot flashes, decreased spontaneous vaginal lubrication and an increased risk of thinning bones and heart disease.
The transition through menopause can last 10-15 years (biological menopause) or can happen in as little as one to two months (due to surgery or therapies that cause sudden ovarian failure). The amount of time that menopause takes can have a dramatic effect on the occurrence and severity of physical symptoms.
As women mature through their 40s and 50s and transition through biological menopause, ovarian function slowly ebbs, then ceases. The ovaries are responsible for producing several hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone), as well as holding, maturing and then releasing fertile eggs into the oviducts leading to the uterus. As menopause proceeds, the estrogen produced by the ovaries becomes less and less, which eventually prevents any eggs from maturing or being released. It’s thought that hot flashes are caused by the brain attempting to “kick start” the ovaries into producing more estrogen—the flashes finally subside when the brain realizes that estrogen production isn’t going to rise up again.
Some women experience these symptoms over decades, and the body has a longer period to adjust to the changes. However, women who have undergone surgical removal of the ovaries or chemotherapy to treat cancer often experience these symptoms suddenly at whatever age the surgery/therapy occurred. It’s a shock to lose all that ovarian estrogen suddenly, and it takes active planning to manage such a quick physical change.
What does estrogen do?
Estrogen is a talented hormone that has many effects on the human body. Although mostly recognized for its effect on egg maturation, estrogen receptors (places where estrogen works) are found all over the body—in the brain, skin, muscle, and sub-skin tissues, to name a few places—and are produced in fat cells in both males and females. This means that when women lose their ovarian estrogen, they continue to make a maintenance level of estrogen. It also means that those of us with a little more “padding” may transition through menopause more gently than those with less.
The major functions of estrogen are:
- Priming of sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, etc.)
- Production of pheromones
- Maintenance of skin elasticity and sub-skin tissue thickness.
- Maintenance of muscle mass
- Positive effects on blood vessel neurotransmitters that help the vaginal lubrication process
Estrogen “revs up” sensory organs and helps make the world seem like a fresher, brighter, zestier place. The process of making estrogen is the same process that helps make pheromones (hormones that we smell unconsciously). Both of these effects help to make the world seem a bit sexier, and help the world think that we are sexier as well.
Estrogen also helps skin stay elastic and flexible and keeps the padding under the skin thick and lush. This extends to muscle tissue, helping maintenance and repair of muscle occur faster and more efficiently. When estrogen circulates through the blood stream, it supports a neurotransmitter responsible for production of vaginal and mucous membrane lubrication. When estrogen ebbs, vaginal lubrication also ebbs, because estrogen isn’t there to assist its production.
First, menopause is a completely natural and safe process of a woman’s life cycle. It isn’t healthy for your body to be “pushed into youth” by estrogen for all of your life. Studies have clearly demonstrated that estrogen can be too much of a good thing and can prompt your cells to live forever. This is not good, since cell immortality is another way to describe some types of cancer (such as breast and uterine). Your body will be far healthier when it can gracefully transition through its natural phases, rather than being pushed too hard with a constant supply of estrogen.
Second, not everything that happens during menopause happens because of the loss of estrogen. Other events often overlap with menopause and can have detrimental effects on your sexual health.
For example, many people slow down their physical activity in mid-life, which makes their muscles more resistant to the action of insulin. Insulin is the key that helps food/sugar move into cells, and therefore keeps your body “fed.” When your body cannot move sugar into muscle cells, you experience “insulin resistance.” High levels of blood insulin cause blood vessels to become stiffer and lose their flexibility. Stiff vessels can’t transfer as much blood as flexible vessels, and when it comes to sexual arousal, blood flow is a major component. So exercising less means less blood can get to sexual tissues, which means less arousal and engorgement.
Other people find themselves so busy at this point in their lives that they don’t have time to maintain physical touch and contact with the people in their lives. Touching helps our brains secrete a comfort hormone called oxytocin that helps us feel secure and relaxed. Less time for touch can have a major impact on our sense of well-being; whether we feel cared for, and whether those around us feel that we care for them.
You don’t need estrogen to maintain a satisfying sexual life; there are some straightforward habits and techniques that can help you be as sexy as you want to be! Incorporating these activities into your daily life can make a world of difference.
Lower your insulin resistance. Keep your blood vessels flexible and keep your sexual arousal alive. It’s easier to achieve orgasm when blood flow to the whole body is healthy. Take a walk or do some other form of aerobic exercise at a moderate pace for 30 minutes a day, every day. Take the stairs when you can (or do your armchair push-ups). Rev your engine regularly and keep the blood moving around.
Maintain your muscle mass. Consider joining a gym or finding a good video/book that will teach you basic strength training. This will help mellow the aging process, and can give you a boost of self-confidence.
Moisturize and massage your genital tissues with a moisturizing sexual lubricant. We suggest using a moisturizing water-based lubricant help maintain the moisture and flexibility of your vulva and genital tissues. Regular massage (at least once a day for five minutes) can help maintain the elasticity of your genital skin and the thickness of the tissue under your vulva, and help prevent tearing. See our Vaginal Renewal Program™ for more information, and visit our Sexual Wellness Store for effective moisturizing lubricants. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable sitting down during the day, you can preventively apply a moisturizing lubricant to your vulva and inside your vagina. You can apply it using your fingers, a dilator, or a needle-less syringe. This can make a huge difference in allowing the vaginal walls to “slip by each other” as you bend or sit, and help you stay comfortable throughout the day and night.
Maintain pelvic floor strength. Learn where your pelvic floor is and learn how to exercise it. This helps maintain your connection with the experience of sexual arousal. Tension of the pelvic floor is critical to most people’s experience of feeling turned on. When pelvic floor muscle strength starts to slip (which is accelerated by loss of estrogen), you may begin to feel as though “nothing happens down there anymore.” Strengthening your pelvic muscles is as easy as brushing your teeth, and it will put a big smile on your face! Read more about Pelvic Floor Health here.
Regularly schedule orgasms. Maintain your sexual system by giving it exercise! We recommend a minimum of one orgasm per week—really. This will help the system remember what sexual arousal is and how to do it. This will also increase blood flow to the genitals and keep your nerves functioning smoothly. No partner is required, and a vibrator can speed up the process if you wish. Orgasms are also a great way to facilitate sleep.
Think sexy thoughts. Sexual feelings are a two-way street: some of those feelings are responses to sexual changes in your body, while other feelings are generated in your mind. Don’t be afraid to get yourself ready to be sexual—it can be rewarding. Desire might not always occur spontaneously, especially if you are tired or stressed. Give yourself permission to call up your sexual imagination. See our Libido brochure for more information on ways to do this.
Hold on to your natural hormones. Stop smoking, and drink less alcohol. Tobacco has an anti-estrogenic effect that blunts sexual arousal, decreases bone strength, and stiffens blood vessels. These hurt the sexual arousal response and accelerate aging. Alcohol blunts testosterone production—so the less you drink, the friskier you’ll be.
Maintain touch in your life. Oxytocin, the I-am-loveable hormone, increases with touch. Hug a friend, a pet, or a loved one.
Sleep. It’s hard to be interested in sex when you’re exhausted. Sleep at least 7-8 hours every night—you’ll experience more pleasure when you’re rested and awake.
Eat the Good Sex Diet. Originally developed as an anti-cancer diet, it’s excellent for promoting sexual health as well: Most of all, remember to care for your body, and your body will return the favor.
The Good Sex Diet
1. Eat 1-2 oz. of dark chocolate (70% or higher) a day.
2. Drink green tea if you can, or Rooibos (Red) tea if you don’t like green tea or want something without caffeine. Have as much as you enjoy; 2-3 cups per day recommended.
3. For protein, choose beans, chicken, turkey, only wild-caught fish (ocean fish, not whitefish), and only grass-fed beef. Eat protein at every meal to help stabilize blood sugar.
4. Eat lots of differently colored vegetables. 3-5 servings a day, including broccoli, leafy greens, carrots…Only eat yellow, blue or sweet potatoes, not white. Eat corn only occasionally, and only fresh kernels.
5. Eat lots of fruit, especially apples and berries, 2-3 servings per day.
6. Eat at least 1 oz. of nuts per day (walnuts or almonds are good). Eat nuts as a snack when you are hungry to satisfy your hunger and stabilize your blood sugar.
7. Cook with healthy oils like canola and olive oil. Avoid trans fats completely, and use butter sparingly.
8. Avoid white flour and white sugar. Use whole wheat flour and honey, fruit sweetener or agave syrup when making sweet desserts, whenever possible. When you do treat yourself to something sugary, eating a handful of nuts along with can help to balance out your blood sugar.
9. Drink lots of water. Filtered tap water is fine.
10. Supplement your diet with the following every day: ~A basic multi-vitamin (Theragran M is a good choice) ~Fish Oil–1000-4000 mg ~Vitamin D3–2000-4000 IU and ~Calcium Citrate–250-500 mg (no other form of calcium). These will give you maximum protection against cancer and maximum help for your cell membranes. You want your Vitamin D levels (tested by your doctor) to be at least 60, and ideally closer to 80, for highest immune function and maximum protection against hot flashes. The products sold at www.puritan.com have all been tested to be pure and contain what they say they do, and they have good prices (we have no affiliation with this company).
11. Exercise 30 minutes a day, to a sweat (or a nice glow). Enjoy at least one orgasm per week to boost your immune system and maintain your nerve conduction.
12. Did I mention chocolate?