There’s an old adage that, when it comes to sex, men are like a microwave and women are like a crockpot. The crock-pot analogy works insofar as it goes: a crock-pot takes a while to warm up and start cooking, whereas a microwave can get there in a minute flat. So just how do we maintain a healthy sex life?
The limitations of the metaphor are that a woman’s sexuality is complex in ways other than just the temporal. A woman’s emotional response to her partner, and to the circumstances of the encounter, can be as important as her physical response. In my clinical practice, I found that women’s sex lives can be derailed by everything from low desire to the inability to enjoy sex comfortably.
But while there are times where a woman just isn’t aroused by the man in her life (“Not tonight dear, you are a headache!”), most women who are looking for a healthy sex life may benefit from preparing their body for sex with the right nutrition.
The Physiology of Sex
Let’s step back and look at the physiology of sex. This is the starting point to create a healthy sex life. You may be experiencing the most romantic interlude of your life, but for you to respond to the mental and emotional forms of arousal, there are certain changes that must take place in your body. Blood must flow when and where it’s needed to produce engorgement in an arousal response. Anything you do that compromises your body’s ability to deliver that blood will curb your sexual response. To have a satisfying sex life, you absolutely need a healthy cardiovascular system, and that depends on the proper nutrition.
While there’s no specific food that causes sexual dysfunction in women, there is a pattern of eating that will make it difficult to engage in sex. Conditions that impair blood flow—such as hypertension, atherosclerosis, oxidative stress, type 2 diabetes—are all cardiovascular hazards as well. Eating in a way that contributes to these conditions is eating that contributes to sexual dysfunction.
“But Dr. Fried,” you may say, “I am just getting older. My sex life is suffering because my body just won’t respond like it used to!” The most important determinant of how well you age—apart from the environment—is your heredity. Your genetics create a timeline for how your body changes. A poor diet accelerates that timeline and ages you sooner. A really good diet lets you stick to your timeline, and may even lengthen it a little. But it’s a fantasy to believe that you can slow the aging process. The most important thing to remember about good nutrition is not that it will keep you young, but that it will enable you to progress along a reasonably normal aging timeline.
Three Diet Tips to Keep Your Body Prepped for Great Sex
There are several things you can do to help prevent the aging process from accelerating and to keep your body prepared for great sex. These include three food factors:
>> 1. L-arginine
First choose foods rich in L-arginine, the amino acid that controls the way our vascular system works. A diet rich in L-arginine helps prevent premature aging of the heart and cardiovascular system. L-arginine works by making nitric oxide, a gas that enables blood to flow freely through the body. When your blood vessels are impaired and can’t produce an adequate amount of nitric oxide, they can’t dilate as they should. L-arginine helps maintain the health and pliability of your arteries by slowing atherosclerosis, while also promoting healthy blood pressure.
Nitric oxide is crucial for the sexual arousal in women, including genital engorgement and lubrication. L-arginine-rich foods include chickpeas, beans, nuts, tuna, beef, chicken, lamb, lobster, shellfish, and other meats.
>> 2. Veggie power
Second, enjoy your vegetables. Veggies are high in fiber which helps keep dangerous cholesterol levels low. As an added bonus, you’ll get L-arginine and a host of other health benefits.
>> 3. Brighten your plate
Third, brighten your plate. The most colorful fruits and vegetables deliver healthy amounts of antioxidants that clean out the sludge from your cardiovascular system, or help prevent it from accumulating in the first place. The cholesterol floating around in your body becomes oxidized (and therefore dangerous) if you don’t have an adequate amount of antioxidants. There’s no point in delivering nitric oxide to a vascular system filled with sludge—the system won’t respond.
A Word on Supplementation
This all sounds fairly simple, right? Well, there is one caveat: when you eat meats high in L-arginine, your body also makes ammonia which eats up some of the L-arginine. That is why there are so many people who may be L-arginine deficient. That’s also why there are so many arginine supplements out there. (While L-arginine supports sexual vitality as well as cardiovascular and heart health, people with an active herpes infection are cautioned to be on a low L-arginine diet.)
The Chemistry of Desire
Once your body is working better, what about sexual desire? It is more than just soft lighting and romance?
In a word: Yes. The reality is that for both men and women, sexual desire is determined by testosterone. Women: your body converts estrogen into testosterone. So if you are in menopause and your estrogen is declining, so is your testosterone. That lack of estrogen also makes it physically more difficult to engage in intercourse.
What’s this got to do with nutrition? You might be reducing estrogen in your body prematurely by following a diet designed to reduce your body fat. Your body needs fat to make estrogen. Female athletes who have very low body fat often stop menstruating, and they don’t develop large breasts. The moral of the story: it may not be a great idea to dump all the fat that’s in your diet.
If that thought sends you running and screaming the other direction for fear that you’ve got to sacrifice either your sex life or your skinny jeans, consider this. A truly healthy diet—one that is good for your cardiovascular and sexual health—is not likely to help you lose weight. Nuts are very good for you in moderation but nuts aren’t on most weight-loss plans. Lobster is rich in L-arginine but it’s also high in cholesterol, which is fat. Even many of the recommended fruits are naturally high in sugar.
This advice is not permission to gain weight. Rather, this illustrates why a balance of diet and exercise is so critical. You need to make up your mind about where you’re heading and—when it comes to your body’s aging process—how quickly you want to get there.
By Robert Fried, PhD