(we promise: not a stiletto or silly gadget among them)
A fulfilling sex life is one of the most important ways to stay connected to your partner and boost self-esteem. But great sex doesn't just happen on its own--and less so as you age. Your need for intimacy changes, and your body may not respond the same way it did when you were younger. Here, five common reasons that women over 40 find their libido lagging, and the scientific interventions that can get it happily humming along again.
Reason: You Have Low Testosterone
We tend to think of testosterone as a "male" hormone. But small amounts--delicately balanced with estrogen--fuel a woman's sex drive. Unfortunately, at menopause testosterone starts to decline, which can cause desire to plummet. Hormone therapy throws off the balance even more. A blood test and your gynecologist can determine if low testosterone is to blame. Luckily, studies show that stabilizing testosterone levels can rev up arousal in postmenopausal women--and improve all areas of sexual response, from lubrication to stronger, more powerful orgasms.
How science can help
Testosterone gel Although the FDA has not yet approved a testosterone gel specifically for women, many doctors simply prescribe the male version off-label or have a compound created by a pharmacist (a female gel is in the works). And no, it won't make you grow hair on your chin or give you huge muscles. "The doses prescribed for women aren't large enough to stimulate male characteristics," says Anita Clayton, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Virginia and author of Satisfaction: Women, Sex, and the Quest for Intimacy.
Certified sex researcher Beverly Whipple, PhD, professor emerita at Rutgers University and coauthor of The Science of Orgasm, recommends ArginMax for Women, a nutritional supplement containing ginseng, ginkgo, multivitamins, and minerals. Science backs her up. ArginMax increased sexual desire, including clitoral sensation and orgasm frequency, in several studies. In one, women taking the supplement daily for 4 weeks reported a 74% improvement in satisfaction with their sex lives. In another study, men taking the male version of ArginMax experienced similar results.
Birth control with benefits
"Ironically, oral contraceptives increase levels of a protein that binds with testosterone and makes it less available to get our brains thinking about sex," says Clayton. But hormonal contraceptives that are inserted into the vagina and release a minimal amount of localized hormone (such as the NuvaRing), or are administered through the skin (such as a patch) and nonhormonal methods (such as condoms or spermicides) can free up that testosterone--and your sexual desire.
Reason: You're Distracted During Sex
It's not just those endless to-do lists that make your mind wander. You're wired that way. According to brain scan research, women's brains are naturally more active than men's, even during sex. The reason: lower levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. "Dopamine creates the desire to go after a reward--in this case, an orgasm," explains Clayton. Dopamine also increases the flow of sensory impulses to the genitals, essential for arousal. But low levels of dopamine caused by chronic stress or medical conditions can distract you during sex.
How science can help A supplement that contains the hormone DHEA
This hormone (dehydroepiandrosterone) may increase dopamine production and normally spikes right before orgasm to enhance desire and focus. Taking 300 mg of DHEA an hour before sex significantly increased both mental and physical arousal in postmenopausal women, according to a study published in the Journal of Women's Health & Gender-Based Medicine. Clayton only recommends 25 to 50 mg and warns that DHEA can affect some people's cholesterol levels, however. So be sure to check with your doctor before taking it.
A simple test for ADD
Up to 2 million adult women in the United States suffer from attention deficit disorder, which may be associated with low dopamine levels, says Daniel G. Amen, MD, a psychiatrist, brain imaging specialist, and author of Sex on the Brain. This can literally make it difficult to pay attention during lovemaking. However, "when a woman is finally treated for ADD, usually with a combination of drug therapy and behavior modification, it improves her sex life--not to mention the rest of her life as well," he says. To get a test for ADD, go to prevention.com/links.