Hormones like estrogen and testosterone can influence a woman’s sex drive and habits, but a new decade-long study suggests relationships and emotional health can play an even stronger role.
"While levels of testosterone and other reproductive hormones were linked to women's feelings of desire and frequency of masturbation, our large-scale study suggests psychosocial factors influence many aspects of sexual function," study author John F. Randolph, Jr., of the University of Michigan Medical School, said in a news release. "A woman's emotional well-being and quality of her intimate relationship are tremendously important contributors to sexual health."
The findings may challenge the efficacy of testosterone therapy, which may improve sexual function in women whose ovaries have been removed, the researchers noted. The Endocrine Society advises doctors against prescribing testosterone to healthy women.
In the research, published in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, the study authors analyze the relationship between reproductive hormones and sexual function during the menopausal transition. About 3,300 female study participants reported their interest in sex and sexual activity, and researchers took their blood samples to measure their reproductive hormone levels.
One of the hormones that researchers drew— dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS)— can be converted into testosterone or a form of estrogen called estradiol, and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). According to the news release, levels of FSH rise during menopause.
Researchers found that women who had naturally higher levels of testosterone— as well as DHEAS, a precursor to testosterone— reported more frequent sexual desire than women with low levels of these hormones. However, Randolph said these associations were modest. Relationship satisfaction, on the other hand, was a stronger predictor of better sexual function, researchers found.
"Women's relationships and day-to-day reality are intricately linked to sexual function," Randolph said. "Our findings suggest menopausal women who are dissatisfied with their sexual function should consider whether these non-hormonal factors are playing a role when discussing treatment with a qualified health care provider."