More often than not, we don’t fully recognize how alcohol is affecting our lives until we start cutting it out. As a physician on the Monument platform, I see firsthand how excessive drinking affects all dimensions of my patients’ health, and the physical and emotional effects of the alcohol recovery journey.
Recovery is an incredible process, and brings an abundance of benefits of sobriety. However, early recovery is often characterized by uncomfortable changes that indicate that our body is healing. One of those changes that is very commonly experienced, but very rarely spoken about, is decreased sex drive. It’s completely natural to experience a decreased sex drive when beginning a sobriety or moderation journey.
Low libido can occur for many reasons, including physical, mental, and emotional drivers. With time, the body and mind are able to heal, and you’re able to more authentically embrace all the joys of life. Here’s why alcohol & alcohol recovery can affect sex drive, and what to expect throughout your journey. First, let’s start by looking at the biology behind alcohol and sex drive.
What is Alcohol’s Affect on Sex-Related Hormones?
When alcohol is first consumed, testosterone and dopamine levels rise, which may initially increase sexual desire. However, this boost is only temporary. Over time, drinking alcohol can cause a decrease in testosterone, serotonin, and dopamine, which in turn can lead to depression, anxiety, and overall decreased sexual desire.
The good news is, the body is an incredible healer. With time, your body will adjust its low testosterone, serotonin, and dopamine levels back to their healthy states. Hormone levels and sexual tendencies typically recover within the first 4 weeks of the alcohol recovery timeline. It’s completely natural to have a decreased sexual desire during that time period. With long-term sobriety or moderation, the body will re-stabilize hormone levels, allowing sex, and life in general, to be more fully enjoyed. As a physician on the Monument platform, I witness this healing process everyday.
Ways alcohol can affect sex-drive
Alcohol use can impact sex drive in many ways, including physical, mental, and emotional changes. Here are few of the most common ways alcohol can affect sex drive.
It Can Make it More Difficult to Orgasm
Because alcohol can impact sexual desire, arousal, and physical sexual function, it can make it more difficult to achieve an orgasm. Orgasms may be less intense, take longer to reach, and occur less frequently.
It May Cause Nerve Damage To Occur
Long-term excessive alcohol use can lead to nerve damage both in the clitoris and the penis. This can contribute to difficulty with arousal or achieving an orgasm, which can also lead to a fear of intimacy and sexual intercourse.
When one decreases their alcohol intake or becomes sober, the body begins to naturally heal itself. While some damage can be permanent, the nerve-endings will start to repair themselves so that the body will likely regain full sexual capabilities again. If you have questions about the physical side effects of alcohol & alcohol recovery, you can ask your physician for personalized advice.
It Can Lead to Lack Of Interest, Including Low Sex Drive and Sexual Desire
Drinking alcohol may lead to a gradual lack of interest towards activities that used to bring you joy, including sex. With excessive use, alcohol can assume a leading role in your life, and activities and relationships can take a back seat. A low sex drive, or low libido, can be described as a decrease in sexual stimulation and interest towards sexual activity. As alcohol can impact an individual’s mental health and emotional wellbeing, any activity – whether related to sexual behavior or otherwise – may feel less desirable for those navigating alcohol use disorder.
These changes can be uncomfortable, but you don’t have to navigate them alone. Working with a therapist in an alcohol therapy program can be a powerful tool in processing these experiences. Regardless of your path forward, remember that this is a non-linear journey, and you hold an incredible power to heal.
Effects of Alcohol on Sex in Men vs. Women
Alcohol can affect each individual’s sexual functioning differently. Men may be particularly affected by how alcohol can initially increase testosterone levels, but lower them in the long-term. Also, different genders may have different cultural associations and expectations surrounding sex and alcohol use, which can affect their drinking habits, emotions, and sex drive. Two other common side effects are erectile dysfunction and vaginal dryness.
While alcohol consumption may cause a temporary increase in sexual desire, it’s not uncommon for the body’s sex organs to respond negatively to alcohol. When it comes to alcohol and sex drive, many people experience physical sexual dysfunction. For people with penises, alcohol consumption can impact their ability to get and maintain an erection, a phenomenon referred to as alcohol-induced erectile dysfunction. For those that do achieve an erection, it’s also common for excessive drinking to result in delayed ejaculation.
For people with vaginas, alcohol consumption may impact normal vaginal secretions during sexual activity causing vaginal dryness, which can lead to an unpleasant sexual encounter. Excessive drinking may impact the body’s response to sexual arousal, making it more difficult for vaginas to self-lubricate, and resulting in vaginal dryness, unwanted friction, or discomfort during sexual intercourse.
Self-Esteem Needs Time To Recover
Some people experience a temporary boost in self-esteem when they consume alcohol. It’s not uncommon to feel like your drinking habits are part of your personality, even though drinking is a behavior, not a character trait. Because of that, many people experience an early recovery identity crisis. Recovery often requires getting to know oneself again without the influence of drinking alcohol. While cutting back on alcohol ultimately leads to increased self-confidence, it can be difficult to regain your sense of self right away. Feeling unsure about yourself can decrease your sexual arousal. There is nothing wrong with needing time for self-discovery before being intimate with another person.
Building self-esteem while changing your relationship with alcohol
Shame And Intense Emotions Can Be Distracting
Unfortunately, alcohol use disorder is often misrepresented as a personal failure instead of a medical condition. Let me be clear, choosing to change your relationship with alcohol is an incredible and brave act of self-care. It isn’t always easy, however, to juggle the various emotions that can come with making this transformation. Experiencing shame, feeling fear of not reaching a goal, or simply being preoccupied while undergoing change are all legitimate reasons to have less sexual desire during the early days of recovery. All of these emotions need space to be felt and therefore better understood. Therapy can help you to work through your feelings and restructure negative thought patterns.
It May Strain Your Relationships
Alcohol use disorder can also have a significant impact on loved ones, including our romantic relationships. After experiencing their loved one’s past excessive alcohol use, partners of people in recovery may have their own emotional reactions during the recovery journey, including feelings of resentment or anxiety. They are also deserving of support, and time to heal. This might initially affect a couples’ sex life. Healing is possible with open communication, engagement with resources like online alcohol support groups for people in recovery and friends and family, and a sense of mutual compassion.
How Does Alcohol Affect Fertility?
Many people are unaware that alcohol can significantly impact fertility. Alcohol consumption, especially in unhealthy quantities, can affect ovary function and decrease the ability to conceive. Unhealthy drinking habits can also decrease testosterone and sperm count. In addition, studies show that drinking alcohol prior to conception can increase the risk of heart defects in children.1 If you and your partner are hoping to conceive, changing your relationship with alcohol can improve your chances of fertility. There’s lots of resources to help you both cut back, like these tips on how to stop drinking every night.
It’s worth noting that alcohol use during pregnancy is extremely dangerous and should be avoided. Drinking while pregnant can lead to various conditions such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, various alcohol-related birth defects, and higher risk of miscarriage.²
How Does Alcohol Recovery Affect Your Sex Drive?
When you renegotiate your relationship with alcohol, many of the effects of long-term drinking can be reversed. Relationships can be mended and self-esteem can be repaired. Your body has a miraculous capability to heal, and facing emotions head on makes you a stronger, more present person.
Will My Sexual Function Return When I Stop Drinking?
The good news is, with time, physical sexual functioning can be fully restored. Many people report that they have a significantly improved sex drive and overall sexual satisfaction in sobriety. In some rare cases involving heavy alcohol use over a long period of time nerve damage or impaired sexual functioning can’t be fully healed. However, this is less common. Speaking with a physician can help you assess your symptoms and address any concerns.
At Monument, we provide a judgment and stigma-free alcohol treatment program and support every step of the way. Whatever the challenge, you are not alone.
- European Journal of PReventive Cardiology. “Parental alcohol consumption and the risk of congenital heart diseases in offspring: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis, https://academic.oup.com/eurjpc/article/27/4/410/5924865”. Accessed Jun. 10, 2022.
- National Library of Medicine. “Alcohol and fertility: how much is too much?, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5504800/”. Accessed Jun. 10, 2022.