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Your Mental Health

Where did my sex drive go?

It’s not something most people are comfortable expressing in a group… but most adults experience periodic ebbs and flows in their libido and sometimes the ebbs are more frequent or last longer than we care to admit.

Many different things can affect a person’s sex drive and when a long term relationship is involved, there are two people who need to be in the mood so the balance can be even more delicate.

Since it’s a topic many people shy away from bringing up in the doctor’s office, today I’ll talk about some of the major issues known to put a damper on sex drive and some of the solutions available.

First, let’s get the gender question out of the way. Low sexual desire is much more common among women than men, but it is by no means strictly a female problem. Many of the main culprits for lowering sex drive affect men too. In order for a couple to have a satisfying sex life, both partners need to be in a physically and psychologically conducive space for it.

Our population is aging and we are living longer than ever before. This is great news, but when it comes to sexuality, there are a few issues associated with aging that can cause us problems. Hormonally, both men and women experience declining rates of sex hormones as we age. For men, lower testosterone levels and the possible development of prostate issues or endocrine problems can cause a decline in desire. As women go through menopause and estrogen declines, this can affect the libido as well as cause changes in vaginal tissue that can make intercourse a painful experience. In this case, lubricant creams or gels can help.

There are also some hormonal treatments available that can help some people, but do need to be discussed with a physician. Your family doctor can help you sort through the options as well as their risks and benefits.

Hormones aside, some of the other chronic ailments and issues associated with aging such as arthritis, joint pain and cardiovascular problems also don’t help in the bedroom.

With this in mind, physical health is important for people of all ages and affects all aspects of our lives including life between the sheets. When our body isn’t healthy, it’s very difficult to maintain a healthy sex life. Getting regular exercise, properly treating any chronic health issues, maintaining a healthy body weight, quitting smoking and avoiding too much alcohol can all help.

Another common libido crusher is the fatigue, busy-ness and stress of our daily grind. When we don’t get enough sleep and are feeling the pressures of a demanding job or overwhelming household, it’s difficult to get in the mood for much aside from a good night’s sleep. Hard as it is, it may be necessary to carve out a bit more time for relaxation, rest and connecting to improve libido. When we are sleep deprived or stressed out, our body may not produce the necessary hormones.

Anyone who has children can likely remember the sleepless, foggy days of having a new baby in the house. This is one time of life known to take a toll on a couple’s sex life. The pain of recovering from childbirth, hormonal changes and sleep deprivation are all at fault here. Time will help ease all of these issues and as long as the couple remains connected in other ways, there is no reason a satisfying sex life will not return.

Of course, unresolved relationship difficulties or loss of intimacy will also rob a couple of their libido. Communication and remaining close in other ways often produce a satisfying sex life simply by their presence.

Finally, mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety are known to affect sexual desire. If these conditions exist and are not treated, this could be one of the symptoms. When a person is depressed, a loss of interest in enjoyable activities usually occurs and can be resolved with appropriate treatment.

If your sex drive is non-existent and you can’t figure out why, consider speaking with your doctor about it. Ruling out underlying health issues could make a big difference.



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Alcohol is a deadly force

Although it’s an important part of our social culture, alcohol is also a deadly force in this world. According to a report released by the World Health Organization earlier this year, alcohol is more deadly than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence.

Actually, at 2.5 million alcohol related deaths each year, unsafe alcohol use is responsible for nearly four percent of deaths worldwide.

Alcohol is the world’s third largest risk factor for disease burden after childhood malnutrition and unsafe sex – but it is the leading risk factor in many higher income nations such as the Americas and the Western Pacific. In Europe, it is the second largest.

In its Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, the WHO suggests rising incomes have spurred more drinking in some of the heavily populated countries in Africa and Asia over recent years. Along with this, binge drinking is becoming more of a problem in many developed countries. In Russia, alcohol is responsible for one in every five deaths.

At the same time, many countries have weak control policies surrounding alcohol and this is not a priority for governments in spite of the rising human cost of excessive alcohol consumption.

Of course, here at home we are aware of some of the dangers of excessive alcohol use. Our government has put in place many of the recommended policies to reduce the impact of harmful alcohol use – including minimum legal age, legal limits on blood alcohol levels when driving and taxes on alcoholic beverages.

Still, the dangers are not gone. Most of us have met someone affected by a drunk driving incident and we know about increased violence when alcohol is involved as well as chronic illness such as cirrohsis of the liver due to long term alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abuse also increases the likelihood of various cancers, cardiovascular disease, sexually transmitted infections and suicide. It weakens the immune system and also lowers our inhibitions so that we engage in more risky behaviours.

Young adults are particularly at risk when it comes to problem drinking. Around the world, 320,000 people between the age of 15 and 29 die from alcohol-related causes each year – representing nine percent of deaths in that age group. Alcohol is the leading risk factor for death among young men aged 15-59.

Unfortunately, alcohol abuse has the ability to reach far beyond simply the health and safety of the individual doing the drinking. Friends, family and bystanders can all be put at risk.

Most adults are able to enjoy alcohol in moderation and do so safely. If you feel you are unable to indulge in a social drink without remaining in control, I urge you to speak with someone about the possibility of an alcohol abuse problem. Potential costs to yourself and others are too great to ignore. Help for alcohol abuse is out there.



Empathy on the decline

Empathy is one of the finer human traits. We like to think of it as a hard-wired aspect of our humanity and one of the things that sets us apart from some other species – our ability to understand and care about the feelings of others.

Certainly, it is very important in the function of a fair and compassionate society. If we can put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, we are more likely to help that person out during a difficult time and when we do this on a large scale we can raise the quality of life for all.

This is why some recent data is concerning. One US study out of the University of Michigan examined data from 14,000 college students who had filled out a self-report questionnaire between 1979 and 2010 and found young people today are considerably less empathic than they were 30 years ago.

According to this study, 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than their peers of 30 years ago. Empathy has declined in each of the last three decades with the sharpest decline occurring since 2000.

At the same time, other research points to a significant rise in self-reported narcissism and emphasis on the self. The lead researcher from this empathy study reported that many consider the current group of college students to be the most self-centered, competitive and individualistic in recent history.

It does seem to follow that a growing emphasis on self would correspond with less concern or care for others.

So what is making people have less empathy today?

Although a definitive answer is not available, there are several theories being posed by those in the field. Mostly, an increase in social isolation is blamed for the recent drop in empathy. People today are more likely to live alone and less likely to be part of groups than they were in the past. Social isolation has been linked to having less empathic feelings toward others.

Increased media exposure to violence through news, television and video games is also posited as one way in which we have become numbed to the pain of others.

Of course, no modern theory would be complete without the effects of social media playing into it as well. Some believe social media such as Facebook contributes to the problem because we can have the illusion of many friends with not much depth of relationship while also being able to ignore or tune out if a person’s problems make us feel uncomfortable.

People today are also far less likely to read than they were in previous decades. In the US, some recent data suggests less than 50 percent of today’s adults read literature for pleasure with the sharpest decrease occurring in young adults. A study out of York University suggests reading is connected to empathy – children who read more stories are better able to understand the emotions of others and those who read less fiction tend to report themselves as less empathic.

Still, empathy has been shown as a trait that is somewhat in-born among humans – and researchers from this study find a silver lining to the decline in recent years to show that our social context and environment can have a large impact on even innate traits.

If we can have a sharp decline, we can surely also make changes and choices that will have a positive effect on empathy. These are where the research should lead so that we can foster a caring, compassionate society where we are not solely concerned about number one.



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Higher death rate in mentally ill

Seriously mentally ill individuals have a much higher death rate than the general population.

On the surface, this may just seem like a probable consequence of having a serious mental illness. For example, much attention is paid to the increased suicide risk among those with major depression, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Although this does contribute to the higher likelihood of death among the mentally ill, it is not the primary cause. In fact, those with psychiatric conditions are more likely to die from a lot of different causes than the general population – most notably from chronic physical illness such as heart and lung disease or cancer. There are 10 times as many deaths from these causes as there are from suicide among the mentally ill.

It has long been known that physical and psychiatric illness often go together. When one is present, it seems to worsen the other – in both directions. For example, depression is known to worsen outcomes in physical illness such as heart disease and at the same time, when physical illness begins, it tends to have an immediate effect to worsen symptoms of depression.

According to researchers in the field, the death rate for people with mental illness is about 70 percent higher than in the general population – and worse for those with schizophrenia. People with major mental illness often die up to 25 years earlier than their non-mentally ill peers.

In a review paper examining the scale of this problem, researchers learned that the highest death risk is among patients with severe mental illness and that 72 percent of the excess deaths occur in patients who have only ever attended general practice for their psychiatric care.

The problem of excess mortality is present in all clinical settings and has been around for centuries. All of this begs the question – why do we have so many unnecessary deaths among the mentally ill?

A few theories exist about the reasons for this problem. For one thing, many of the risk factors for chronic illness are preventable and involve lifestyle modification. Things like smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol.

We know that some of these issues are particularly common among the mentally ill. For example, up to 80 percent of people with schizophrenia also smoke and some of the medications commonly used to treat this condition can cause significant weight gain. People with mental illness are more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs and less likely to exercise at recommended levels than the general population.

Perhaps individuals dealing with severe mental illness are missing out on opportunities to prevent or treat these issues when the rest of the population is not.

But lifestyle factors are not the only explanation. When it comes to cancer, the incidence of many forms is no higher than in the general population, but those with co-existing mental illness are more likely to die from their cancer.

Some other explanations for an increased death rate could include a lower compliance with treatment for chronic illness, issues with communication or an overlap between psychiatric and physical symptoms which could make it harder to diagnose chronic illness.

All of this simply points to the importance of educating health care providers in all settings about increased risks and ensuring regular health screening for patients dealing with mental illness. We could do a lot toward preventing as many as 33,000 unnecessary deaths each year in Canada.



Read more Mental Health articles

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About the author...

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research and administration. After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar. Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC where he has held many administrative positions and has done numerous clinical trials. He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders. He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

 

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet presents its columns "as is" and does not warrant the contents.


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