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Tips to revitalize sex life after 50 with traditional Chinese medicine

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
libido, sex problems, traditional Chinese Medicine, TCM, Laurie Steelsmith

Couples counselor Laurie Steelsmith notes that a new movie starring Meryl Streep covers a problem she often encounters in her practice: a lackluster sex life. Hope Springs is a movie in which Meryl Streep plays the role of an intimacy, and sex-starved 60-year-old wife. Streep plays Kay, whose three-decades-old marriage to Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones, has gone the way of separate bedrooms. They haven’t had sex in five years and not even Kay’s donning an alluring negligee can sway her hubby from his sole-occupancy mentality. The couples counselor they visit gets them to talk about their feelings and gives them “intimacy” homework assignments to reignite a spark to their seemingly long lost sexual flame.

Dr. Steelsmith notes that trust, communication, and getting out of comfort zones are important factors for restoring libido. However, she feels that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is an approach that has addressed these issues for centuries. She explains that the 2,000-year-old system uses a mind-body approach to illness and disease, and recognizes that decreasing vitality, including sexual energy, is part of aging. However, there are certain TCM protocols that any couple can follow to help get physical forms of affection back on the schedule. The following are three problems and solutions for a healthy love life makeover.

(1) Discomfort during or after sex. If a woman’s hormone levels are low, which is typically what happens when she gets older, sex doesn’t feel good. In fact, dryness in the vagina and vulva (some women describe it as feeling akin to sandpaper) can be downright painful, even causing a burning sensation.

TCM defines dryness as a yin deficiency, also known as lack of moisture. The tissues of the vagina and vulva depend on estrogen for nourishment. As early as perimenopause, when estrogen levels slowly begin to decline, most women begin to experience some form of genital dryness. And by the time they’ve completed menopause, a lack of estrogen may have made their vaginal lining extremely thin, delicate and sensitive.

Solution: To supply estrogen to these tissues and plump them up with moisture, women can use a natural low-dose estrogen vaginal cream or suppository. The best form of estrogen to use is estriol, an estrogen that’s much weaker than estradiol and other estrogens typically used in hormone replacement therapy. For women concerned about taking hormones, a hydrating aloe vera lotion or vitamin E applied locally may help.

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As part of an herbal program, women can also take Chinese ginseng (also called Panax ginseng or Korean ginseng). Chinese ginseng, which is warming and promotes circulation in the entire pelvic region, is often used to treat or prevent vaginal dryness and tissue atrophy.

(2) Lack of energy and libido.
Being tired is one of the most common reasons older people don’t have sex. TCM refers to fatigue as lack of chi or vital force. Although getting more sleep can help, an herbal program can also assist in restoring libido.

Solution: One of the best herbal aphrodisiacs is reishi, a mushroom that TCM calls lingzhi, the “mushroom of immortality.” Reishi taken daily can gradually intensify one’s sexual chi. Extensive research also associates this mushroom with helping build up the adrenal glands--exhausted adrenals are usually tied to burnout--and enhancing immunity. Cordyceps is another Chinese herb, often used in combination with other ingredients, to elevate libido and strengthen chi.

(3) Lack of time and an imbalanced lifestyle. Even older people can sublimate their sexual energy into other activities. But because sex is healing and comforting, as well as being pleasurable, it’s important to fit it into the schedule. Why does sex get shortchanged? Blame it on putting work and achievement before physical gratification. In my clinical practice, I’ve observed that women don’t allow themselves quality time to bond with their mates.

Solution: For a woman to experience satisfying sex, feeling relaxed and safe is important. If those qualities are in short supply at home, it’s important to restore them.

Dr. Steelsmith recommends that the best way is balancing female yang energy––passion and activity––with the quiet of yin. Getting acquainted with your yin is basically taking time to smell the flowers. Indeed, a TCM practitioner would advise frazzled older patients to head to the country and be part of nature. It’s no wonder why gardening is so popular--it’s an activity that naturally puts you in a yin mood.

About Dr. Steelsmith:
Dr. Laurie Steelmith is a licensed naturopathic physician and acupuncturist with a 20-year private practice in Honolulu. A leading spokesperson on natural medicine, she has appeared widely on TV, radio, and in print. She and her husband, Alex Steelsmith, are coauthors of Great Sex, Naturally: Every Woman’s Guide to Enhancing Her Sexuality Through the Secrets of Natural Medicine (Hay House, July 2012).



This is the first time I read about Reishi as a potential libido stimulator... it escapes me which constituent would be responsible for that effect ? It has moderate estrogenic properties, but these have no effect on libido. The only libido enhancer I know of is the Cordyceps sinensis mushroom, which has a solid reputation in this field, backed up with animal tests and human trials.