It was early on in my practice that I came to the conclusion that issues of sexual function can often be a side effect or symptom of an underlying health condition, or even the inevitable consequence of a combination of unhealthy lifestyle factors, rather than simply a psychological concern.
The light bulb went off for me shortly after I met Jack who was a 36-year-old male. Jack was recently married and was experiencing erectile dysfunction (ED). Jack was in law enforcement and worked shift work which affected his natural rhythms. In addition, he was on a number of powerful medications including those for hypertension and high cholesterol. He was also greatly overweight. As we spoke about his lifestyle, I began to connect the dots between his condition and his overall health and wellness.
Unfortunately, Jack’s primary care physician never addressed how Jack’s lifestyle may have been contributing to his condition. Jack was not told about the connection between overall health and sexual health and he was ignorant of research that suggests that lifestyle changes that focus on regular physical activity and a healthy diet have been shown to prevent and treat sexual dysfunction. He also did not know that obesity alone may increase the risk of ED by anywhere from 30 to 90 percent. Rather than share this information with Jack, the doctor simply wrote him another prescription for Viagra.
Jack’s story is not unique. In fact, many people are unaware of the connection between sexual dysfunction and overall health. For example, research by holistic psychologists and practitioners of alternative medicine suggests there may be a link between certain environmental exposures to a host of sexual issues. One such example is in the case of endometriosis. This is an estrogen-dependent disease – some argue that risk of endometriosis is increased by exposure to environmental chemicals that mimic hormones.
I no longer avoid the obvious when treating patients. Now, I do an overall health assessment with patients – a change in method that continues to prove beneficial. One female patient who was experiencing sexual dysfunction shared with me that she had been diagnosed with interstitial cystitis (IC). When I learned that, another light bulb went off. Research suggests that IC can negatively affect sexual function. In my client’s case, her IC caused pain to radiate in her vagina, which she had to both understand and manage before we could move forward.
I make it a regular habit to teach clients how to look critically at the way they live, work, and deal with stress as a means of achieving long-term success in restoring sexual function. Over the years, I have done everything from take females with sexual dysfunction off birth control to overhauling their diet and exercise routines. I have even changed their personal hygiene products. The vulva contains skin, glands, and mucous membranes, which makes this area uniquely vulnerable to both pathology and psychosomatic issues. Many females have allergic reactions to perfumes, and other ingredients in their soaps, reactions to rubber and latex, and douching. All of this needs to be assessed as many females cleanse themselves vigorously. In fact, even issues such as Lichen Sclerosus, VIN, ulcers, Behcet’s Syndrome and a whole host of others can be aggravated by certain ingredients.
Once, it was popularly thought that sexuality issues were “all in people’s heads.” Solutions were therefore sought out from the realm of psychology and part of therapy involved exploring factors such as cultural background, childhood, religious ideas, etc. While that still holds true, after years of research and practical experience with patients, I am now convinced of the necessity of blending that old approach with newer modes of investigation. I call that multi-faceted approach holistic functional sex therapy, which is what I practice now.
Every factor of human life should be explored when seeking solutions for sexual health issues. With hope, future research will only confirm the necessity of adopting and adapting that more expansive approach, which will ultimately serve the needs of people, such as Jack.
Sexology International, like all of our work, is for people of all sexual preferences and all forms of gender expression, including people whose identity is something other than male or female. As such, we like to use gender-neutral pronouns. More recently accepted alternatives include words like “ze” and “hir” or the universal pronoun “they.” Throughout our work, we will be doing our best to use alternative pronouns, such as “they,” whenever gender or plurality is unimportant. In doing so we hope it helps everyone to feel included in the discussion and that it inspires you to think outside of traditional sex and gender binaries.