Words: Nicci Talbot
I met Dr Michel Jemec recently at his Swiss fertility clinic. I’d contacted him earlier in the year to find out if there was any update on his research into LH and female libido. In 2006 he contacted netdoctor to say that his work suggested high levels of LH make women horny, while low levels make us apathetic about sex. It’s an interesting theory because most sex research focuses on the link between testosterone and sex drive.
What is Libido?
Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of ‘libido’ as being an energy or life force. Carl Jung thought it was creative or psychic energy that we could use for personal development. Psychotherapist and agony aunt Christine Webber points out that it’s hard to measure because there aren’t any ‘units of desire’ and it’s a subjective thing. A combination of biology – low testosterone and LH levels, and psychology – personality and stress levels, social issues, work and family. Jemec believes it is hormone driven and linked to Darwin’s theories of positive selection. He says that women have a lower libido during the first half of the menstrual cycle because we need to free from sexual drive in order to select the best possible mate. Then we have a sexual peak at ovulation lasting two days when libido is higher to make conception more likely.
He says that men and women aren’t supposed to have the same sex drive – it’s different for biological reasons and advises men to familiarise themselves with their lady’s hormonal cycle to understand this. Men generally have high levels of LH, which are constant throughout the month so they don’t experience the same dip/rise in sexual drive.
The Effects of the Pill
Research in 2006* shows that the pill and other hormonal contraceptives low libido by raising levels of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) in the body. SHGB binds to sex hormones (testosterone) making them unavailable in the body and levels can remain high even when a woman has stopped taking it. The pill works by blocking the LH surge to prevent egg release. I had no libido when taking the pill so came off it pretty quickly.
What is LH?
LH (luteinising hormone) is produced by the pituitary gland. Jemec calls it ‘life hormone’ and explains that it triggers ovulation in women and testosterone production in men. The pituitary gland secretes FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) and LH to help egg follicles mature. The LH surge at ovulation lasts for two days, which is why sex feels most satisfying mid-cycle.
Normal levels of LH during a woman’s reproductive years are between 1-20 IU/L. A reading of lower than 1.2IU/L is deficient (you can get your levels tested). LH levels rise in the body after the age of 35 and menopause, which is why women often have a higher sex drive in their 40s, 50s and beyond.
LH gives us drive, motivation and energy. It is often present in higher levels in sportswomen and high achievers, but if levels are too high the body will get rid of it via exercise, talking, singing etc. Stress also lowers our natural LH level, which is why we have no libido when we’re feeling anxious.
We’ve known about LH for a while but so far, there hasn’t been much proper research or studies in medical journals because it’s not been a medical priority. In her book Disorders of Sexual Desire (1979), Helen Singer Kaplan suggested that LH might be used clinically in the future to increase libido.
There is a synthetic version of LH called Luveris, which is FDA-approved and used in fertility medicine to stimulate follicular development (IVF). According to Jemec’s research it can cause spontaneous orgasms without physical touch. He told me it turned him into Mr Busy and he cleaned the house from top to bottom in a morning. He is looking to patent a synthetic version that works with a woman’s natural physiology as a potential treatment for ‘female sexual dysfunction’.
Curious as I am to try Luveris, I don’t think that’s an option at present, as I’m not having IVF treatment! I asked Jemec what we could do to boost libido naturally and he suggested taking maca. Maca is a plant native to the Andes that has an LH-type action on the body and is widely known to be an energy booster. It contains a chemical called P-methoxybenzyl isothiocynate, which has aphrodisiac properties. Studies on rats show it reduces an enlarged prostate gland and increases sexual activity. Small-scale clinical trials on men show it heightens libido and improves semen quality, volume and motility. It doesn’t act on sex hormones directly but provides an optimum levels of nutrients used by the endocrine system.
I’m wary of taking any supplements in high doses for long periods although maca is considered safe and doesn’t appear to have any side effects. Sara Bayley, nutritionist and Biofeedback practitioner says: ‘My experience with [maca] is that it’s too stimulating for some very sensitive types. I think long-term the best way to increase energy (and libid0) is to free up the digestive system by eating foods that are high in life force and very easy to digest. Ones that really energise the body rather than take up energy to be processed – superfoods, green smoothies and lots of raw foods. The foods which tend to be most challenging in their vibration are the grains, sugars and dairy.’
The Libido Project
Jemec is looking for women to chart their menstrual cycle for 50 days noting down the days when libido is high and low to see if this correlates with his research. If you want to participate start on day 1 of your cycle (period) and rate your libido on a scale of 1-5 (5 – high) each day. Click on the link below for further info.
*Warnock et al: ‘Comparison of androgens in women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder: those on combined oral contraceptives vs. those not on combined oral contraceptives’, Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2006; 3:878-882.
Fertility Lifelines – Luveris information