Attention to gut health has become quite the health trend in recent years. From gut health drinks, extensive probiotic snack sections, to articles that purport the best wellness practices for gut balance, like meditation, gut health is now a public inquiry, and for good reason. The gut microbiome, which entails the microorganisms living in the gut, plays a significant role in myriad bodily functions, like brain health and mental health. From desire to dysfunction, it’s no surprise that gut health can also play a part in sexual health.
Gut health generally refers to the appropriate balance of good and bad bacteria in your digestive tract. Issues that plague the gut can vary in severity. However, the rise of certain gut issues, from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and food intolerances, to diseases like Crohn's and irritable bowel disease (IBD) are increasing. Gut conditions are also common among young adults. A recent survey by MDVIP and Ipsos found that one-third of young adults say gut issues affect their self-esteem, and 2 in 5 have avoided sex or intimacy due to gut issues. But the reasons behind why gut issues impact sex aren’t just psychological.
Gut health and sexual health can be interconnected, explained Dr. Martha Tara Lee, D.H.S., a relationship counselor and clinical sexologist. Gut health has some surprising and not-so-shocking potential impacts on sexual health.
“The gut microbiome, which consists of trillions of microorganisms in the digestive tract, plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including immune function, hormone regulation, and neurotransmitter production. Imbalances in the gut microbiome can potentially impact sexual health,” Lee said.
Gut health and sexual dysfunction
According to Mayo Clinic, sexual dysfunction is recurring and includes problems with sexual response, desire, orgasm, or pain. Studies suggest that those with IBS frequently have a sexual dysfunction.
Varying gastrointestinal issues also increase the risk of sexual dysfunction. “There is emerging research suggesting a link between gut health and sexual dysfunction like erectile dysfunction (ED). Some studies have found associations between gut dysbiosis (imbalances in the gut microbiome) and ED. However, more research is needed to fully understand this relationship and its underlying mechanisms,” Lee said.
Gut issues can increase inflammation, which can cause ED. Research around gut health and ED also suggests that the gut microbiota may be used as a solution for the dysfunction, by regulating hormone levels and helping inflammation.
A gut imbalance can also be responsible for yeast infections. “Our gut can experience imbalances without necessarily having an acute infection. These imbalances can be bacterial or fungal. For instance, some people experience an overgrowth of a type of yeast called candida, which is responsible for vaginal yeast infections—and if there's an imbalance in the gut, there's more likely to be an imbalance in the vagina,” explained Suzannah Weiss, an AASECT-certified sex educator and a sexologist for BedBible.
Bacteria leading to vaginal or penile yeast infections can lead to painful sex, Weiss explained. While treatment for yeast infections is effective and usually over-the-counter, gut issues may contribute to a higher recurrence of infections.
Gut health may also impact sex hormones, Weiss explained, “which can impact one's sex drive, orgasmic ability, and even vaginal lubrication. Hormonal imbalances can also be a cause of pain during sex.”
Gut health, mental health, and libido
Gut issues like nausea or diarrhea are pretty much a sure sign that sex is canceled for the night. But aside from impacting desire, gut issues themselves may affect someone’s libido. “The gut produces neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are involved in mood regulation and sexual function. Disruptions in this communication pathway may impact both mental well-being and sexual health,” Lee said.
One significant part of libido and wanting to get it on is your energy. Having a gut issue can impact energy levels because of nutrient absorption and stress. If you’re depleted and experiencing fatigue, sex may feel like pooling your energy from an empty reserve.
When it comes to libido and gut issues, there are both physical and psychological factors at play that can stunt desire. “Symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, or diarrhea can cause discomfort and reduce sexual desire. Additionally, the psychological impact of living with a chronic gut condition can also contribute to changes in libido,” Lee said.
What to do if gut issues are impacting your sex life
So, what’s your course of action if you think a symptom might be related to gut health? “It's debated whether these things should be tested for because many people have them without problems. Others say that after addressing these issues, they experience relief from a number of symptoms, including gastrointestinal issues, fatigue, brain fog, insomnia, and even mental health issues,” Weiss said.
If you have symptoms that might be a gut issue, such as brain fog or low mood, a naturopath may help, Weiss explained. Several lifestyle changes like diet can help improve signs associated with gut issues, such as bloating. Lifestyle changes such as exercising enough and decreasing stress can also help with libido.
However, for acute symptoms like a yeast infection, or gastro symptoms that are impacting your day-to-day life should warrant a trip to your provider—a specialist such as a gastroenterologist can help with necessary testing to make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment.
If you’re having a flare-up from a gut health issue, it is understandable that sex might not be the first thing on your mind. However, it is still possible to have a satisfying sex life with chronic gut issues. If you’re noticing a mental block or challenge around sex, pelvic floor physical therapists and sex therapists may help.
As uncomfortable as it might feel, talking to your partner about any self-consciousness around sex and gut issues can help facilitate closeness. You might also implement a plan for intimacy, such as if you’re having a flare-up, how you explore intimacy in other ways.