Studies Find Connection Between Diet and Sexual Function
- Written by Nancy Hoi Wong OTD, OTR/L, RYT200
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A 2019 study by Towe et al., found that certain medical issues including metabolic syndrome, obesity, and eating disorders have an effect on female sexuality. The study also found evidence that incorporating of healthy dietary patterns into everyday life may positively influence female sexuality.
Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity May Cause Female Sexual Dysfunction
According to the Mayo Clinic, Metabolic Syndrome is a “cluster of conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Metabolic syndrome includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. The syndrome increases a person's risk for heart attack and stroke.” Those with Metabolic Syndrome often have apple or pear shaped bodies.
In addition to increasing risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, metabolic syndrome can affect the function of endothelial cells, which help the body create lubrication including vaginal lubrication. Studies have also found that Metabolic Syndrome can also affect sexual dysfunction by decreasing sexual activity, desire, and satisfaction (Towe, 2019; Trompeter, 2016).
Obesity can be a component of Metabolic Syndrome and has also been linked to decreased female sexual function in other studies including Aversa (2013) wherein the study found that holistic intervention for obesity resulted in an increase in sexual function as measured by desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, and lack of pain.
Eating Disorders and Sexual Dysfunction
Studies have found that eating disorders including bulimia and anorexia can negatively affect sexual function.
Bulimic patients tend to be more impulsive and engage in higher risk sexual behaviors, while people who have anorexia report decreased arousal, lubrication, worse orgasmic function, and other effects on the menstrual cycle (Towe, 2019).
Specific Diets that Have been Found to Positively Affect Female Sexuality
The Mediterranean diet has been shown in a few studies to improve sexual function, specifically for women who also have obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (Esposito, 2007; Towe, 2019).
In Esposito’s 2007 study, participants were asked to adhere to a Mediterranean diet for 24 months with the following guidelines:
Diets were compromised of
- 50-60% complex carbohydrates
- 15-20% of proteins -less than 30% total fats
- less than 10% saturated fats
Subjects consumed at least 250–300 g of fruits, 125–150 g of vegetables and 25–50 g of nuts per day. Additional guidelines included consuming 400 g of whole grains daily (legumes, rice, corn and wheat) and to increase the consumption of olive oil. Women were also advised to increase consumption of fish and to reduce intake of red or processed meat.
By the end of the 24 month trial, those following the Mediterranean diet in the Esposito study reported better sexual function in the areas of sexual desire, arousal, orgasm and pain.
The Ketogenic diet is described by the National Cancer Institute as a “diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates (sugars) that causes the body to break down fat into molecules called ketones. Ketones circulate in the blood and become the main source of energy for many cells in the body.”
In Castro’s 2018 study, women placed on a low calorie ketogenic diet for 4 months reported improved sexual function in the realms of arousal (excitation) and lubrication. The study also reported that some women reported improved orgasmic function.
As pelvic floor therapists, it is outside of our domain to prescribe or counsel people through diet changes. Please check in with your doctor, a registered dietician, and/or a licensed nutritionist for more information.
Aversa A, Bruzziches R, Francomano D, et al. Weight loss by multidisciplinary intervention improves endothelial and sexual function in obese fertile women. J Sex Med 2013;10:1024- 1033.
Castro A, Gomez-Arbelaez D, Crujeiras A, et al. Effect of a very low-calorie ketogenic diet on food and alcohol cravings, physical and sexual activity, sleep disturbances, and quality of life in obese patients. Nutrients 2018;10:1348.
Esposito, K., Ciotola, M., Giugliano, F. et al. Mediterranean diet improves sexual function in women with the metabolic syndrome. Int J Impot Res 19, 486–491 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ijir.3901555
Towe, M., La, J., El-Khatib, F., Roberts, N., Yafi, F. A., & Rubin, R. (2019). Diet and Female Sexual Health. Sexual Medicine Reviews. doi:10.1016/j.sxmr.2019.08.004
Mayo Clinic, Metabolic Syndrome
Trompeter, S. E., Bettencourt, R., & Barrett-Connor, E. (2016). Metabolic Syndrome and Sexual Function in Postmenopausal Women. The American Journal of Medicine, 129(12), 1270–1277.e1. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2016.03.039