I went to a talk tonight that was about social media where there was some psychological jargon used including the libido and on my way back home I was thinking “that’s something I could write about” because I actually know a bit about that. So in the spirit of Monty Python, “now for something completely different”.
The reason why I say that I know a bit about the libido is, well, like everyone, I have it myself at least some of the time. It’s funny that the term is now really only used exclusively in reference to some psychoanalytical theories, like that of Freud, or in medical contexts. It is really not very abstract. None of us would be here without it. What I mean, of course, is what is also referred to as sex drive or sexual arousal. As a young man, as many other men I’m sure can relate to, it was almost unbearable the amount of libido you could experience. Most people just ascribe it to “hormones”, but when I think about it there has to be a lot more to it than that. Looked at holistically, it is also a psychological state so many factors will have their role and undoubtedly some of these are social, such as relationships and current ideals of beauty and attractiveness. These have no direct link to hormones except that the brain is involved in one way or another.
When I say I know a bit about this it is also because when I did my dissertation for my herbal medicine degree I wrote it on sex-hormone-like substances found in plants. There are a surprisingly large amount of common plants that contain these compounds. The pollen of the Black Pine (Pinus nigra) contains testosterone for instance. There are many plants including ones whose products are eaten in abundance around the world, such as soy which is in the family of legumes, which contain many estrogen-like substances. I found it really interesting that the herbal remedies that were used to combat stress, known as “adaptogens”, also contained steroidal compounds similar to the sex-hormones and also in many cases acted as aphrodisiacs. Aphrodisiacs are pretty well known to cause increased libido. Nowadays the most recognisable “aphrodisiac” is Viagra but I would disagree that this is actually an aphrodisiac as its action is too specific as it just causes male erection. I suppose some might argue that it is a specifically male aphrodisiac as it causes the end result of male libido. Interestingly it has also been shown to have the effect of a marked reduction in pre-menstrual pain in women but it is really not marketed for that use at all.
I’d like to return to the point that I was making about the connections between the adaptogens, which help to cope with stress, and aphrodisiacs. Stress is a common experience for a lot of people in our society and is clearly a major issue but one which is seen as mostly psychological. True, the environment does play a certain role in stress, particularly if you live in a heavily polluted environment or where there is a lot of noise or disturbance, however I think most of us experience stress due to causes that come from mental pressures. These might be to do with relationships, work, finances, even political uncertainty, but they are all commonly part of the things we have to think about daily when we live in a complex world. However, these thoughts, insubstantial as they may seem, have an impact on us bodily as well. When you are stressed you might experience a whole host of physical sensations such as heart rate increase, sweating, dry mouth, etc. Mostly these are the result of increased levels of adrenaline in the system which is produced in the adrenal glands of the kidneys. This whole body response is coordinated unconsciously by a part of your nervous system called the autonomic nervous system and the feelings associated with increased adrenaline are part of your flight or fight (or freeze) mechanism also called the sympathetic response. This doesn’t mean the same thing as being sympathetic towards someone, it is just a label for that part of your autonomic nervous system involved in gearing you up for immediate and drastic action. Its complement is the parasympathetic response which is coordinated again by the autonomic nervous system but in a completely different way using different nerves and neurotransmitters which effectively slow you down and even make you feel quite drowsy and relaxed. And also good. When the parasympathetic system is active you might also feel blissed out or euphoric with a sensation of pleasure. Other things happen to your physiology as well with particular blood vessels getting opened to bring blood to your digestive organs, but also to other organs as well, such as the reproductive organs. This is experienced by both men and women, unlike with Viagra. So basically libido is most likely to be experienced when a person is in a relaxed and calm, stress free, state when there are other important psychological factors present including attraction, trust and emotions such as love.
Returning to aphrodisiacs then, the most effective ones basically provide what the body needs to mimic this state. I have to say chocolate seems to me a candidate for possibly the best aphrodisiac there is. However there are many others provided by Nature in all her bounty. Ginseng is another one which is used in the Far East as a tonic. Closer to home we have several contenders. Oats, for instance, is one and that is where we perhaps get the saying “sowing your wild oats” and there are other stress busters like valerian or lavender. Certain plants may be used in conjunction with each other to mix up an aphrodisiac concoction with pungent herbs (perhaps not garlic though) to give it a bit of a kick. Alcohol hardly needs mentioning but if we are going to be taking about getting a bit of a kick it has to be.
On the flip side there is the phenomenon of the an-aphrodisiac and for men one of the most powerful is Hops (Humulus lupus) which also happens to be a major ingredient in beer, hence “brewers’ droop”. Another herb which is said to reduce libido in men is Agnus castus or Chaste Berry which used to be taken by monks. But notably it has the opposite effect on some women so we come back round again to the aphrodisiac and the marvel of the libido and the human body.
I was going to leave it there but after a good night’s sleep it occurred to me that I needed to write a bit further because I haven’t covered some more aspects about libido which I thought were worth exploring. I’ve managed to discuss a bit about aphrodisiacs and their actions which mainly relates to physiology and to a certain extent psychology when we consider the crossover dynamics of adaptogens. Please note I have just used a key word here which I will expand upon.
I’m really into etymology, that is, looking at where words originally came from and there are many in our vocabulary which originated in Greek. One of the Greek words for Nature is “physis” which is where the word “physiology” comes from. It is a pairing of the word for Nature with the word “logos” (another Greek word) which has many, many connotations, but in this context is usually applied to a branch of science or knowledge. Physiology is fascinating and I would definitely recommend reading about it as it covers the wide range of ways in which our bodies work including all the hormonal and neurological details I mentioned earlier.
There is also another word in Greek for “nature” which is “dynamis”. I have distinguished the two when referring to nature by using the capital letter at the beginning, or not in this case. “Physis” refers to Nature (with a capital N) being what we think of as the Natural world, Mother Nature and all of the abundance of biodiversity surrounding us. “Dynamis” can be described as more like our personal nature, what “makes us tick”, that is, it is concerned with our personal character traits. For instance, one person’s nature may be quiet and reflective whereas another person may be loud and outgoing. We act and behave, in other words, according to our nature. Of course this can change and is not the same throughout our whole lives and can even be quite socially determined, such as by the influence of our parents and peers. Nevertheless it is a key aspect of what makes us who we are and even our identity. “Dynamis” also has other connotations as it is used in our language, for example, we recognise “dynamic” as equating to active, powerful or strong. The way in which electrical power is generated is through the use of a “dynamo”.
Now returning to the idea of the libido, I wanted to keep this investigation going because so far what I had described was basically the way the libido functions physiologically and psychologically and how it can be increased (or even lessened). However, what if we look more deeply at what its actual purpose is? It can be seen that we are not the only species on this planet to exhibit sexual drive. It is found in all other living species. I say all because it is obvious in animals like us but it is also found in plants for whom it is an imperative to reproduce as well. You may say that it is not possible to show that plants have a libido but they have developed ingenious ways of expressing their means of reproduction through flowers which are critical to producing offspring. This is literally about “the birds and the bees” as they are the most common ways that pollination is achieved. So Nature (with a big N) invests a lot of energy in species continuation and we are physically and psychologically experiencing that self same energy when we experience feelings of libido. Everyone does because it’s just part of being alive. The feelings may arise and then subside but they will never completely be stopped (not until we die) and so recognising them as here to stay and accepting them is I think quite helpful for us. Trying to deny or repress the feelings of libido can lead to problems physically and psychologically and is ultimately pointless.
The question is: what about the circumstances where libido is experienced but there is not any way of fulfilling its natural conclusion, that is, by culminating in sex? I think we all recognise this situation. It is also part of the nature of the world and of living in it that the libido will not necessarily be gratified every time it is experienced. What happens to that energy? If we were to look at it from a physiological view, in the body the hormones that are involved are constantly being transformed anyway which also requires energy. Testosterone, a hormone which is produced by the glands of the reproductive organs in both men and women, has a steroidal structure which can be transformed by the body’s metabolic pathways into other hormones, including estrogen. Testosterone is involved in the development of what we tend to think of as male sexual characteristics and estrogen in female sexual characteristics. Testosterone is also a powerful anabolic hormone, meaning that it has a role in increasing muscle mass. The opposite of this, catabolism, occurs when there is an energy deficit in the metabolic process and muscle tissue is broken down to provide it. Naturally, this is why some of that energetic and dynamic impulse provided by the libido, in certain cases, drives both men and women to do exercise. The energy of the libido is redirected into another channel1. It does make me seriously wonder what happens when men start taking anabolic steroids (mostly testosterone) because that is such a powerful steroid, and I’ve seen plenty of people and even known some that use it. Personally, I do a lot of writing and this is one of the ways I’ve channelled these energies in the past and am doing so now.
So if the libido is a form of energy which all living beings have then we begin to ask ourselves: if it cannot always be in every situation put into sex then what can it be used for? And in this way we start to question what we would expend that energy on in our lives. What do we want to do with our lives and what is our purpose in life and what are our objectives? How do we act “dynamically”? Another thing which I have been putting quite a lot of energy into recently is learning Gaelic in order to understand Gaelic poetry. Interestingly in much of the older poetry, before the evangelical movement swept through the society and basically denounced anything “of the flesh”, a lot of the poetry was very much a celebration of (or at least an acknowledgement of) the body and its “dynamis” with vivid descriptions of physical attractiveness and prowess, some of which was downright pornographic. The word for man in Gaelic is “fear” which is closely related to the Latin word “vir” which has the same meaning and from which we get the word “virility”. I’m not saying by any means that the libido only finds its expression in masculinity as this would be patently untrue. I do find it interesting however that the “dynamis”, the nature, of a society and the people who live in it who have not repressed or denied the existence of libido but have rather embraced or accepted it, is that they live life to the fullest.
I think that I will draw this to a conclusion as my thoughts are starting to drift. Basically I hope you enjoyed this foray into a topic which is not usually one I go into but I do now realise that I have quite a lot of interest in. If you want to read my dissertation on plants containing sex-hormone-like substances let me know and I may also consider writing more about this in the future. I did at one point think about doing some writing on the topics of virility, fertility and longevity and this may be the starting point.
1 In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory this is called “sublimation”.