Libido - What Is It?

Libido (or sex drive) is your urge to have sex.

Or rather: It is the sensation you feel as you anticipate having sex.

It is normally felt as an intense desire, and it typically puts all other priorities temporarily aside.

Libido is also the evolutionary mechanism that motivates you to have sex. 

Libido drives you to have sex because your brain (instructed by your genes), wants to pass on your genes to the next generation.

Libido Brain On Fire

Libido Explained

By the way, not only human beings have sex drive. Most complex species also do. If you have a dog or a cat, you know what I talk about. 😉

Although libido has existed for millions of years, the term ‘libido‘ was first coined a few decades ago, by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.

So how does it all start? How does libido kick off?

Desire for sex, or libido, is normally set off by some sort of sexual stimulation. 

This can be a visual observation (attractive woman walking down the street), it can be a touch or other sensory stimulation, or it could be a thought or a sexual fantasy, etc.

Man checking out attractive woman walking down the street

This stimulation (for instance that hot woman walking by you) causes dopamine as well as a neurotransmitter called glutamate, to be produced in the limbic system of your brain.  

This brain system is common to all mammals and is considered one of the oldest parts of the brain. It regulates emotion, motivation, pleasure, reward as well as other functions.

And it includes parts that you may have heard of, such as the amygdala, hippocampus and limbic lobe.

Anyways, after that attractive lady passes by..

Dopamine and glutamate then fire up the reward and pleasure centers in your brain, and you start desiring sex. You want sex.

In fact, your brain in its crude caveman form, instructs you to try to have sex with her. But please don’t run back and try to rip her clothes off! 😂 That’s not nice.

Caveman brain wants sex

In other words, libido motivates you to have sex.

And shortly thereafter, dopamine fires off messages that go from your brain, down your spinal cord and to your penis.

Which instruct blood to flow into your penis and produce an erection.

Therfore, dopamine also prepares you for having sex, by starting the process of giving you an erection,

So although you may have thought that everything related to sexual desire happens between the legs, the experience actually occurs in the brain.

Libido, like all other experiences, is brought about by electric impulses flowing along paths of connected nerve cells in your brain.

The brain and libido

When you experience this desire for sex, the dopamine you have produced will normally also cause your heart rate to increase. You may also experience an increase in your blood pressure, your breathing may become more rapid, your cheeks may flush and your palms may get sweaty.

Now that we understand libido better, lets look at why we have libido in the first place.

What Is The Purpose Of Libido? Why Do We Have It?

The genes that sit in your DNA have one main objective: To continue to exist.

Your body is (for your genes) a temporary vehicle that carries and protects them. 

But one day this vehicle (your body) will die. And the genes will need another vehicle in order to carry and protect them. Otherwise, they will die as well.

Your genes want you to reproduce

How could the genes come up with a way to increase the chances that our bodies pass on the genes to a new vehicle?

They gave us libido! And orgasms. And love.

The genes figured out that by motivating us to feel sexual lust, by enabling us to fall in love, and by letting us feel extreme pleasure in the act of creating babies, we would create more babies!

By the way, this didn’t happen overnight. It was an evolutionary process that spanned millions of years.

And those individuals who in the past had a strong sex drive, had more offspring than other individuals. And hence, those with a strong sex drive were selected by evolution through ‘survival of the horniest’.

Therefore, to conclude about libido:

Couple in bed strong sex drive

The role of libido is to motivate us to procreate – to create new life and thereby sustain the life of the genes.

By the way, you have probably noticed that your sex drive fluctuates. Why is that?

What Causes Your Libido To Fluctuate?

Some men have a strong sex drive. Meaning that it takes very little sexual stimulation to set in motion their urge for sex.

Other men have a weaker sex drive. They require significantly more stimulation in order to desire sex.

Libido differs not only from person to person, but also in the same person from one day to the next, as well as over one’s life span.

Sex drive fluctuates

You have probably had periods in your life where you had a super high sex drive. Perhaps during your teenage years, or on a relaxing vacation.

And you have probably also had periods when your libido was almost non-existent.

What causes libido to vary so much?

Research shows that there are several factors that can impact the strength of your libido.

But above all, there are two key hormones that determine your sex drive: Dopamine and testosterone.

Dopamine regulates reward and pleasure centers in your brain. It regulates your desires and cravings.

Therefore, with normal production of dopamine, you will normally have a high libido.

Dopamine regulates sex drive

And with low levels of dopamine production, you will normally have a low libido.

Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, not only supports and controls anything sexual going on your body, but it also supports dopamine.

So if you don’t produce enough testosterone, not only will you be low on sexual fuel, but your dopamine can neither work properly.

But what causes dopamine and testosterone levels to raise and fall, which again causes libido to vary?

There are many factors at play, but the most common reason why your dopamine and testosterone production suffer, is an unhealthy lifestyle.

For instance what you eat and drink is super important for your health, your dopamine and testosterone levels, and hence for your libido. If you don’t provide your body with the right nutrients, your libido will normally be weak.

What you eat is important for libido

The same is true if you are overweight or don’t exercise adequately. Being in good physical shape is essential in order to have good overall health, as well as to have normal production of dopamine and testosterone.

Also, if you drink excess alcohol, smoke, or do drugs, you are likely to cause damage to several systems in your body. This may result in reduced levels of testosterone or dopamine, or both.

If you stress a lot, you are likely to also have reduced dopamine and testosterone production. And therefore a lower libido.

If you don’t sleep enough, particularly your testosterone production will suffer. This is because you produce testosterone while you sleep.

Lack of sunshine will also reduce your testosterone levels. This is because the sun enables your body to produce vitamin D3, which in turn is a building block of testosterone.

Libido Sleep

If you are depressed, sad, anxious or have psychological problems, you are also likely to see declines in your dopamine and testosterone levels.

And one of the most damaging ones:

Watching pornography and masturbating, can reduce you libido in several ways.

First of all, by watching porn and masturbating, you also satisfy your brain’s need for sex. Now your brain craves less sex.

Because every time you do this, you ‘burn up’ some of your libido. If you do this often, you may ‘burn through’ all your hard-earned libido reserves.

Also, every time you have an orgasm, your testosterone levels normally fall. They do rise again, but if you have very frequent orgasms, you can deplete yourself.

Pornography Dopamine

Secondly, by consuming pornography and masturbating, you also flush your brain with excessive amounts of dopamine.

That may initially sound good. But there is a problem:

Your brain can produce so much dopamine that your dopamine receptors can’t handle all the dopamine.

So they start working slower. Then they stop working. And in the end, the receptors may even die.

Therefore, even if there is lots of dopamine in your brain, you can’t use it.

In addition, libido can be influenced by one or more particular personal experiences you may have had in life, for instance one related to sex or physical abuse.

Dopamine receptors libido

The culture you grew up in and its norms, rules and customs can also impact the level of your libido. The same goes for religious beliefs.

Now that we know what can cause libido to fluctuate, let’s take a look at the links between libido and life-quality.

Libido And Quality Of Life

Research shows that libido is an important factor of good health and quality of life.

Meaning that libido is generally considered to be a positive factor in most people’s lives. A strong libido will normally contribute to a person’s happiness.

The flip-side of this, is that a person with no or little libido will often see this as something reducing overall quality of life. Something is missing.

Libido And Quality Of Life

A person in overall good health will normally have a normal libido. Libido and overall health often go hand in hand.

Which also means:

That when your libido is low or non-existent, this can often be an indication of some health problem. Common ones are overweight, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and depression.

Let’s finish off by understanding how libido and erectile dysfunction are connected.

The Link Between Low Libido And Erectile Dysfunction

Most men who struggle with erectile dysfunction, also have a low libido. Why is that?

Link between libido and erectile dysfunction

First of all, this is so because they are intimately linked. They are both part of your sexual functions, and one simply comes before the other.

Libido comes first. Libido starts the sexual process. Libido gets you ready for sex. Hence, libido initiates the process that gives you an erection.

After libido comes the erection. And the maintenance of the erection for long enough to complete sexual intercourse.

Therefore (because libido comes before the erection), it is practically impossible to function well sexually if you don’t have a normal libido.

But, it is possible to have a sex drive and at the same time, not be able to get erections. But it is not common.

Also, the factors that often cause erectile dysfunction, also normally lead to a reduced libido. Such as a poor diet, lack of sleep, too much stress, being overweight, smoking, etc.

ED Unhappy Couple

Research Studies

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Brunetti M, Babiloni C, Ferretti A, Del Gratta C, Merla A, Olivetti Belardinelli M, Romani GL. Hypothalamus, sexual arousal and psychosexual identity in human males: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Eur J Neurosci. 2008 Jun;27(11):2922-7. DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.2008.06241.

Dominguez J, Riolo JV, Xu Z, Hull EM. Regulation by the medial amygdala of copulation and medial preoptic dopamine release. Journal of Neuroscience. 2001;21:349–355.

Dominguez JM, Hull EM. Stimulation of the medial amygdala enhances medial preoptic dopamine release: implications for male rat sexual behavior. Brain Research. 2001;917:225–229.

Research into libido

Dominguez JM, Muschamp JW, Schmich JM, Hull EM. Nitric oxide mediates glutamate-evoked dopamine release in the medial preoptic area. Neurosci 2004; 125: 203-210.

Du J, Lorrain DS, Hull EM. Castration decreases extracellular, but increases intracellular, dopamine in medial preoptic area of male rats. Brain Research. 1998;782:11–17.

Everitt BJ. Sexual motivation: a neural and behavioural analysis of the mechanisms underlying appetitive and copulatory responses of male rats. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 1990; 14: 217-232.

Giuliano F, Allard J. Dopamine and sexual function. Int J Impot Res. 2001 Aug;13 Suppl 3:S18-28.

Gray PB, Garcia JR. Evolution & Human Sexual Behaviour, Harvard University Press, 2013.

Libido Brain Scan

Hackney AC, Lane AR, Register-Mihalik J, Oʼleary CB. Endurance Exercise Training and Male Sexual Libido. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2017 Jul;49(7):1383-1388. DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001235.

Halaris A. Neurochemical aspects of the sexual response cycle. CNS Spectr. 2003 Mar;8(3):211-6.

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Holloway V, Wylie K. Sex drive and sexual desire. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2015 Nov;28(6):424-9. DOI: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000199.

Hull EM, Du J, Lorrain DS, Matuszewich L. Extracellular dopamine in the medial preoptic area: implications for sexual motivation and hormonal control of copulation. Journal of Neuroscience. 1995;15:7465–7471.

Karama S, Lecours AR, Leroux JM, Bourgouin P, Beaudoin G, Joubert S, Beauregard M. Areas of brain activation in males and females during viewing of erotic film clips. Hum Brain Mapp 2002, 16:1–13.

Libido full body MRI

Krüger TH, Hartmann U, Schedlowski M. Prolactinergic and dopaminergic mechanisms underlying sexual arousal and orgasm in humans. World J Urol. 2005 Jun;23(2):130-8.

McKenna K: Central nervous system pathways involved in the control of penile erection. Annu Rev Sex Behav 1999, 10:157–183.

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Mouras H, Stoléru S, Bittoun J, Glutron D, Pélégrini-Issac M, Paradis AL, Burnod Y. Brain processing of visual sexual stimuli in healthy men: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroimage. 2003 Oct;20(2):855-69.

Pfaus JG, Scepkowski LA. The biologic basis for libido. Current Sexual Health Reports 12/2005; 2(2):95-100. DOI: 10.1007/s11930-005-0010-2.

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