New ways to increase female libido

Is your sex drive lower than you'd like it to be? Forget stealing his Viagra—instead, look to new scientific research (and sexual aids) aimed at increasing women's libido

By Wing Sze Tang

New ways to increase female libido

If chemistry sparks love at first sight, could a little lab-made magic help keep the fires burning in bed? A flagging libido is the most common sexual complaint women have.

But for those of us looking to spice up our lust life, a variety of libido-boosting, arousal-enhancing gels, patches and pills are poised to hit the market. While they’re not a fix for problems rooted in relationship difficulties—which may benefit from counselling—they offer some highly anticipated treatment options. Best Health spoke with experts across Canada for an update on the latest.

Female-oriented arousal aids

Specialty personal lubricants make up the majority of remedies available to boost female arousal and enhance orgasm. Current over-the-counter products include Vibrel, a vitamin B3-based formula that bolsters blood flow below the belt, and Zestra, which reportedly enhances “sensory nerve conduction” with botanical oils. Both arrived in Canada last year.

With these experimental natural products, a strong placebo effect may partly account for their effectiveness, explains Lori Brotto, director of the Sexual Health Laboratory at the University of British Columbia. Still, she encourages patients to try them. “If the patient benefits because she’s expecting to, great—go for it.”

So far, there is only one Health Canada-approved product for women with arousal disorder (the inability to attain or maintain excitement and lubrication during sex): Eros Therapy. This hand-held device goes on the clitoris and uses a gentle mini vacuum to heighten blood flow and sensation. It can be applied during foreplay or without intercourse to condition sexual responses. “It’s a different kind of vibrator, really,” says Irv Binik, a psychology professor at McGill University and director of the Royal Victoria Hospital’s Sex and Couple Therapy Service. “Some women like it; some don’t.”

What’s up next? Several companies are developing arousal enhancers based on topical alprostadil (prostaglandin E1, a substance found naturally in the body), which also enhances blood flow. The ingredient is used to treat erectile dysfunction, and researchers are hopeful it will work for women.

Testosterone therapy—for women?

Testosterone appears to play a direct role in sexual desire for both men and women, and products containing the hormone are already being prescribed “off-label”—that is, prescribed for a use not approved by Health Canada—for women with low libido. “What’s interesting is that, for women with low testosterone, it seems to increase desire but also arousal, or lubrication, and sense of orgasm, so it can have an impact across the sexual response spectrum,” points out Dr. Stephen Holzapfel, director of the Sexual Medicine Counselling Unit at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. In the U.K., Procter & Gamble’s testosterone-based Intrinsa patch has been prescribed to surgically menopausal women since last year, but it has yet to land in North America.

LibiGel may become the first drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for female sexual dysfunction. It’s a testosterone gel applied daily to the upper arm and could launch in the U.S. as early as 2011. In a small but notable trial with surgically menopausal women, those who used it for three months reported an increase in “satisfying sexual events” by 238 percent compared to baseline levels. But like HRT, testosterone products are controversial because the safety of their long-term use—especially by premenopausal women—is unknown, and there are fears of adverse effects in pregnancy, breast cancer and heart disease.

Increasing libido by focusing on the brain

Going beyond blood flow and hormones, some scientists are focusing on the brain. New Jersey-based Palatin Technologies is investigating a new class of drugs that could spur desire in men and women by acting on the zones of the brain linked with arousal. While research on the company’s headline-grabbing “aphrodisiac,” a nasal spray called bremelanotide, was shelved last year over FDA concerns about side effects (namely, increased blood pressure for short periods), a similar product is now being tested on women. Animal studies are promising: The drug led the females to solicit sex more often, says Jim Pfaus, a Concordia University professor of psychology who has researched both the old and new compounds. The substance “amplifies the action of the excitatory system” in the brain, he explains.

Another promising drug is flibanserin, now undergoing extensive phase III trials (results are expected in late 2008 or early 2009). The oral treatment balances out “too much inhibition”—the other main force in the brain that guides libido, explains Pfaus. The drug “doesn’t mean everybody’s going to wear lampshades and have sex in the street,” he says. It just “normalizes” hyper-inhibitory systems. Depending on the trial findings, we may see this drug in Canada in the near future. With its broad potential to help many revive their sex drive, including premenopausal patients, this may be the breakthrough women are waiting for.

This article was originally titled "The New Science of Arousal," in the November/December 2008 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!

Best Health Magazine, November/December 2008

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