Life Extension Magazine October 2008
Reverse Aging by Restoring Youthful Sexual Function
By Eric Braverman, MD
One of the distressing—and most often lamented—side effects ofthe aging process is a loss of sexuality and its components: desire, enjoyment, and performance. At 20, a man experiences an erection daily, but at 70, he’s lucky to have one every two weeks! For women, sexual desire is often lost through several age-related mechanisms.
Since healthy sexual function has strong connections to a robust vascular system as well as psychological health, it is an important cornerstone of a life enhancement strategy.1 Healthy sex requires a multitude of components working in tandem, from brain neurotransmitters to hormonal and nutritional balance.
The encouraging news is that age-related factors contributing to sexual dysfunction can be prevented and treated, making it possible to maintain a satisfying sexual life well into advanced age.2 Virtually everyone can maintain a healthy sex drive and enjoy one or two sexual events a week.
This article explores these factors and how they work together to not only keep your sex drive healthy but protect against age-related diseases.
Aging’s Toll on Sex is Reversible
Aging affects all parts of the body linked with sexual function both internally and externally. In men, greater physical stimulation is required to attain and maintain erections and orgasms are less intense due to brain, hormonal, and vascular factors. In women, menopause contributes to sexual decline, both as a result of its physical symptoms (dryness, hot flashes, and weight gain) and mental symptoms (mood swings and irritability).
Cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, hypertension, diabetes, and virtually any disease can have significant negative effects on healthy sexuality. For men, problems like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and renal failure can produce erectile dysfunction.3,4 In women, diabetes in particular has been shown in various studies to lessen desire, arousal, lubrication, and orgasm.5 Diabetes damages nerves in the clitoris and penis, which literally stunts the ability to experience sensuality.
For both sexes, other factors like sleep disorders, dementia, slower metabolism, and aches and pains associated with aging decrease sexual desire and performance. Obesity is associated with lack of enjoyment of sexual activity, lack of sexual desire, difficulties with sexual performance, and avoidance of sexual encounters. Obesity causes endothelial dysfunction, which increases men’s risk of developing erectile dysfunction.6 Obesity also affects women’s arousal, lubrication, orgasm, and satisfaction.7
External factors like smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, stress, and side effects from almost any medication (particularly antidepressants) can impact sexual arousal and response at any age; their effects are even more marked in older people, with erectile dysfunction being a common complaint.
While well-known treatments like Levitra®, Viagra®, and Cialis® address erectile dysfunction, they mask the underlying problems and eventually may stop producing the desired effect for patients. Side effects ranging from headaches to vision abnormalities8 have been commonly reported with such medications. These drugs work best at treating vascular forms of erectile dysfunction (i.e., reduced blood flow to the penis, brain, and body), but this is rarely the result of vascular trouble alone. Thorough medical testing is needed to determine the root cause of erectile dysfunction. It should also be noted that erectile dysfunction, while often a result of degenerative diseases, can itself indicate more serious health problems. Erectile dysfunction has been identified in many studies as a predictive precursor of cardiovascular disease,9 and a proven risk factor for diabetes, hypertension, and angina.10
Of course, the aging body isn’t the only problem. There is also the brain and mind to contend with. A healthy brain leads to a healthy attitude, and a positive outlook is required for an active sex life. Significant psychological factors that affect loss of sexuality include perceived attractiveness in elderly people and reactions to societal stereotypes, which are too often trivialized. They can be remedied, however, with hormones and nutritional agents that help restore figure, physique, and psychological well-being.
The Biochemistry of Healthy Sex: Hormones and Neurotransmitters
In both men and women, sexual activity and performance is determined by the levels of neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain and body. Hormones are biochemical compounds produced in the brain and in other organs and glands that regulate specific systems in the body. Like tiny chemical messengers, hormones carry signals from one cell to another. Similarly, neurotransmitters convey information between nerve cells and other cells. Many brain neurotransmitters and hormones are associated with sexual and reproductive function, for example, the neurotransmitters dopamine, acetylcholine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and serotonin and the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These chemical messengers are crucial not just for sexual health, but for our overall health.
Taken to its most basic level, sexuality in humans can be broken down into four components: desire, arousal, orgasm, and resolution. Each phase is governed by a corresponding brain biochemical, along with contributing hormonal influences. The result is simple mathematics, in conjunction with a balancing act: when the brain experiences a chemical deficiency in any of the four primary areas due to normal aging, the desire for sex correspondingly diminishes. Sex doesn’t seem so enticing, and the physical act itself will leave one lacking. Likewise, diminishing hormone levels with aging contribute to declining sexual function in older adults.11
Assessing Neurotransmitter Imbalances
One of the first steps to achieving a balanced life—and a better sex life—is to understand which of your neurotransmitters could be brought back into better balance.
We are now able to test the brain using the brain map or BEAM (Brain Evaluation and Assessment Method) test. The BEAM test measures electrophysiology, memory, attention, personality type, temperament, and deficiencies in the four core neurotransmitters (dopamine, acetylcholine, GABA, and serotonin). You can use the results to find the correct match of nutritional and hormonal agents to enhance brain function, sexual health, and well-being. Alternately, an individual’s symptom picture may provide clues revealing which neurotransmitter systems are out of balance.
Dopamine and Desire
Dopamine has been conclusively recognized in many studies over the last decade as playing a key role in desire.12,13 Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts on the sympathetic nervous system to control libido, aggression, and power. In medication form, dopamine acts on the sympathetic nervous system to produce effects such as increased blood pressure and increased heart rate.14
Low levels of dopamine typically result in loss of libido as well as reduced interest in sex and decreased energy for sex. Sexual arousal also suffers.15 Medications that block dopamine receptors have been associated with decreased libido.16 One recent animal study determined that administration of drugs that stimulated dopamine terminals in the brain was effective in treating hypoactive sexual disorders.17
The good news is that everyone’s libido can be greatly enhanced. Numerous vitamins, minerals, natural treatments, hormones, and prescription therapies can boost sexual energy in individuals who experience symptoms of low dopamine levels:
Acetylcholine and Arousal
Arousal is determined and initiated by acetylcholine. While not as powerful a neurotransmitter as dopamine in terms of regulating sexual desire, depleted acetylcholine levels are known to negatively affect cognitive functioning, especially memory, attention, and creativity.18,19 People with acetylcholine deficiencies may find themselves unable to concentrate and focus on sex. A loss of acetylcholine particularly affects sexual arousal.20 Acetylcholine also regulates internal moisture.18 Low levels can cause dryness, affecting vaginal lubrication in women—which in turn leads to lowered desire for sex. Lower moisture levels can also adversely affect semen volume in men.
Numerous nutrients, natural treatments, and hormones can boost arousal in individuals who experience symptoms of low acetylcholine levels:
Enhancing Orgasm with GABA
Orgasm release is controlled by the body’s levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA (synthesized from glutamine and inositol) is considered to be one of the most important inhibitory neurotransmitters in the central nervous system. GABA helps inhibit excitatory neurotransmitters that can cause anxiety if the system is overstimulated. This is important, since chronic anxiety can lead to loss of sexual interest and sexual dysfunction.
GABA is responsible for regulating sexual tone and plays an important role in brain hypothalamic/pituitary function.21 Therapeutic drugs that increase the available amount of GABA typically have relaxing, anti-anxiety, and mood-soothing effects.22 Conversely, when GABA becomes depleted, it is difficult to relax and let go of fear and negative feelings. Hence, orgasm becomes difficult. GABA-enhancing compounds could help increase dopamine levels, which may enhance sexual satisfaction.
Numerous vitamins, minerals, natural treatments, hormones, and prescription therapies can support sexual release in individuals who experience symptoms of low GABA levels: