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Sex is an important part of life — it supports relational intimacy and your health! In addition to the pivotal role sexual intercourse plays in reproduction, sexual activity can provide you with pleasure and happiness and can help you develop emotional connections with others. Studies have even shown that sex can benefit health: It builds endurance, improves your heart health, provides pain relief, brightens your mood, and burns calories. Your brain is also super activated during sexual activity — hormones are released just by thinking about sex.
However, sometimes your desire for or interest in sex may be lower than normal — known as having a low libido. Reasons could be emotional, social, or even biological. In this article we’ll look at autoimmunity and libido, and what you can do if autoimmune related low libido is affecting your quality of life.
Do Autoimmune Diseases Cause Low Libido?
While everyone may experience a temporary decrease in sexual desire at some point in their life, if you’re one of the 23.5 million people in the United States living with an autoimmune disease, your loss of libido may be a symptom of your condition.
Autoimmune disease happens when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs, causing inflammation that leads to unpleasant and disruptive symptoms such as pain, digestive issues, fatigue, and low libido. There are nearly 100 types of autoimmune diseases and each can be difficult to diagnose, especially in the early stages, because symptoms can vary from person to person and many conditions don’t have one single test to make a diagnosis. Symptoms also mimic other conditions that are not autoimmune in nature.
Low libido is a common symptom of many different autoimmune diseases because of increased inflammation in the body, which can affect various organs that are related to sexual function. There are also many biological and emotional effects of autoimmune disease that can decrease your libido, such as negative body image, fatigue, hormonal imbalances, and mental health issues. Increased pain because of inflammation can also make sex less appealing and enjoyable. (Source)
Inflammation can also affect your heart, which affects how blood pumps through your body — an important part of sexual arousal. Some medications prescribed for autoimmune disease also can cause a low libido. (Source)
Autoimmunity and Libido in Women
If you’re a woman living with an autoimmune disease, inflammation may interfere with your emotions and hormones, both of which are key for sexual arousal. This can affect relationships, confidence, reproduction, and more.
Inflammation may also make you feel less attractive, which can decrease your interest or willingness to participate in sexual activities. Inflammation can cause pain all over your body, including in your genital areas. It can also cause you to have vaginal dryness, which can make sex incredibly uncomfortable. (Source)
Autoimmunity and Libido in Men
Erectile dysfunction (ED), a common condition that affects over half of men in the United States, can be a symptom of many autoimmune diseases. Inflammation can cause a decrease in physical mobility, which can affect a man’s ability to maintain an erection. As with anyone who is feeling pain, chronic pain from inflammation can also affect a man’s interest in sex. (Source)
There are also conditions that result from autoimmune diseases that can lead to lower libido in men. For example, having an autoimmune disorder such as lupus is a risk factor for a condition called Peyronie’s disease, in which fibrous scar tissue deforms the penis and makes erections painful. (Source, Source)
Low libido can be a symptom of nearly every autoimmune disease. It is commonly seen in people with:
rheumatoid arthritis: Sexual dysfunction and a decrease of interest in having sex in people with rheumatoid arthritis is usually associated with pain and depression, two common symptoms of the disease.
systemic lupus erythematosus: Studies show that lupus can cause depression and low self esteem, which can lead to low libido. It also can cause pain in the genital areas, making sexual intercourse uncomfortable. This is more common in women than in men.
inflammatory bowel disease: If you have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, there could be many reasons for low libido. It is possible for symptoms such as diarrhea and pain, for example, to disrupt your ability to have sex. Sometimes even the fear of experiencing symptoms during sex can affect your sex drive.
Hashimoto’s disease: Low libido is often an effect of Hashimoto’s disease, the most common cause of hypothyroidism. Low thyroid levels can lead to lower levels of sex hormones, impairing sexual function.
Multiple sclerosis: Multiple sclerosis damages the protective covering of nerves, causing communication problems between your body and brain. If you have multiple sclerosis you may have diminished sensation in your genital area, vaginal dryness, erectile dysfunction, or mobility issues that can affect your desire to have sex.
Sjogren’s syndrome: For women with Sjogren’s, which affects moisture-producing glands, vaginal dryness can make sex uncomfortable. Sjogren’s can also cause day-to-day discomfort from dryness of the mouth and eyes. These symptoms, separately or combined, can lower libido.
Sexual preferences, level of interest, and frequency of sexual activity is highly individual and varies from person to person. Your libido is unique to you and shouldn’t be compared to others. That said, there are emotional and physical signs that your libido is lower than normal for you. These include:
decreased interest in sexual intercourse with a partner, or other sexual activities such as masturbation
fewer (or no) sexual fantasies or thoughts
feelings of worry or stress about your libido
feelings of dissatisfaction about your libido
These can happen whether you’re single or in a relationship. Low libido can also be related to imbalances in the sex hormones testosterone, estrogen, or progesterone. This may be especially noticeable during perimenopause and menopause, when hormone levels tend to fluctuate significantly. (Source, Source)
Causes and Triggers of Low Libido
There are many different factors that can trigger a decrease in libido for anyone, whether you have an autoimmune disease or not. However, if you have an autoimmune disease, it’s important to talk with your health care provider about any concerns you have. Your low libido could be related to your condition, and you could be having a disease flare that needs to be addressed.
There are a number of other factors that could be affecting your libido that are not directly related to your autoimmune condition.
Relationship issues, such as problems with communication, trust, or intimacy with one’s partner, are common causes of a decrease in sex drive. If you have a fight, for example, your desire to be romantic may dwindle. Additionally, in a long-term relationship frequency of sex is likely to diminish over time. (Source, Source)
Studies also show that a woman whose partner experiences ED, for whatever reason, may also see her own sex drive start to decrease. (Source)
Stress or Fatigue
Stress can distract you from your interest in sex, and also can interfere with hormone levels that can biologically cause a lower libido. Stress increases how much cortisol, known as the stress hormone, is produced in your body, and this can suppress your sex hormones (estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone). Stress can also be linked to inflammation, a major factor in autoimmune disease. (Source)
Fatigue, also a common symptom for many different autoimmune diseases, can lead to a lower libido. When you’re tired it may be harder to activate the hormones needed to turn you on. Plus, who wants to have sex when you’re exhausted?
There are many different types of medications that may affect your libido. While lower libido may be a common side effect, it’s important to speak with your health care provider to see if your symptoms can be addressed, or to make sure they’re related to your medication.
Medications used to treat autoimmune diseases that are known to cause a decrease in libido include:
Glucocorticoid agents, which are used to treat many types of autoimmune diseases such as lupus, can interfere with testosterone levels.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID), which are commonly used to reduce inflammation in people with autoimmune diseases, can cause ED.
Chemotherapy, which may be used to reduce the activity of the immune system in people with certain autoimmune diseases, can cause a decrease in interest in sex. This may be due to side effects such as anemia, diarrhea, and fatigue, in addition to loss of self-esteem. Chemotherapy can also cause temporary menopause, which can lead to a decrease in sex hormones.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), common medications used to treat depression and anxiety, often cause sexual dysfunction that can lead to loss of libido.
Autoimmune diseases are often correlated with mental health issues. Conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders can cause low self-esteem, fatigue, and hormone imbalances that can affect libido.
Anxiety, for example, can increase cortisol. As mentioned, high levels of cortisol can suppress the hormones estrogen and testosterone and affect your sex drive. (Source)
If you have experienced trauma related to sex, such as harassment, abuse, or rape, it is natural to have a lower desire for sexual activity.
Being told you’re unattractive or being dumped by a romantic partner can also impact your self-esteem, which can decrease your libido. (Source)
Chronic conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and thyroid disease, can affect your libido. Additionally, pregnancy and conditions such as urinary tract infections and yeast infections can cause discomfort that affects your libido. (Source)
As men and women get older, it’s common for sex drive to decrease. Reasons can include hormonal changes (as with menopause) and physical changes that come with aging. Additionally, as you get older chronic health issues such as cardiovascular disease and mobility start to pop up, which also can affect your libido. (Source, Source)
How Is Low Libido Diagnosed?
There is no one specific test to diagnose low libido.
If you are experiencing a loss of interest in sex, talk to your health care provider to see if it could be related to your autoimmune disease. They’ll ask you basic questions about your health, medications, stress level, and sexual history, as well as go over your symptoms.
They’ll also look at your whole health to make sure there’s not another related cause. If they think it may be related to something physical they may test your hormone levels, do a pelvic exam, or order a relevant imaging test. They also could run tests to see if you have a condition known to cause low libido. (Source)
Treatment for Low Libido
If your loss of libido is affecting your quality of life, it’s important to speak with your health care provider about a solution. For people with autoimmune disease, there are different ways to address low libido, depending on the root cause.
If hormonal imbalances are the issue, lifestyle changes such as stress management, nutrient repletion, supplements, and exercise could all help improve your libido. Talk to a WellTheory expert to learn more about what you can do to help maintain healthy hormone levels.
If you’re on a medication known to affect libido, your health care provider may try changing your medication or altering your dosage.
If stress related to your autoimmune disease is the suspected cause of your low libido, your health care provider may recommend you seek counseling, or try techniques aimed at reducing stress. These could include journaling, exercise, or meditation.
Learning about the causes of low libido and educating yourself and your partner about it may help overcome barriers related to your sex life.
Often treating the root cause, which could be the inflammation related to your autoimmune disease, will help treat the related symptom of low libido. Talk to your health care provider or rheumatologist if you think you’re having a flare of your disease.
There are also health care providers that specialize specifically in sex and relationship issues. (Source)
When Should I Seek Medical Advice for Low Libido?
Many people, both with and without autoimmune disease, shy away from talking about sex-related issues with their health care providers because of the stigma or embarrassment around the topic. However, sex is an important part of life, and if a lack of desire is affecting your quality of life it should not be ignored.
If a decrease in libido is affecting your quality of life, let your health care provider know. They may be able to help you address its cause, make sure it doesn’t become a long-term issue, and ensure you get your groove back.
Prognosis of Low Libido
For most people, occasional loss of libido is normal and temporary. Everyone’s sex drive fluctuates over time, depending on many factors in life such as work stress, rocky relationships, biological changes, and overall health.
If you have an autoimmune disease that’s causing your low libido, it’s important to work with your health care provider to address your symptoms and make sure your disease is under control. If your low libido is related to a physical symptom of your disease, such as pain or ED, treating that symptom may also help.
Potential Complications of Low Libido
If you have low libido, it could affect your relationship with your romantic partner. Additionally, if your libido is related to another symptom of your autoimmune disease, it could mean that your disease is uncontrolled. This is important for your health care provider to know, as they may need to alter your medication or create a plan for you to implement lifestyle changes to get you back on track.
While autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, in many cases they can be managed. If left untreated, autoimmunity may lead to permanent, irreversible damage to many different areas of your body.
The Bottom Line on Autoimmunity and Libido
Sex and sexual activity is a normal, healthy part of life. While your interest in sex may fluctuate over time, if you think your loss of libido is related to your autoimmune disease, it’s important to talk with your health care provider. Your low libido could indicate your disease is uncontrolled.
Whether your low libido is tied directly to your autoimmune disease or not, talk with your health care provider or WellTheory coach if it’s affecting your quality of life. They can help you take back control of your health and suggest ways to help you get it back to where it once was — or where you want it to be.