What is Libido?

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Libido is a term that is commonly used to describe sexual drive or a desire for sexual activity. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. Moreover, modern physicians recognize the importance of libido as one of the key indicators of general health and quality of life.

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Throughout history, the term 'libido' had a diverse meaning in the work of psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. These include Sigmund Freud, who placed it on one side of his instinctual dualism, as well as Carl G. Jung, who identified libido as psychic energy. Today, such wide-ranging definitions are seldom used, and when talking about libido, we are mostly concentrated on sexual drive.

Evolutionary perspective of libido

Libido was conceived as ultimately biological in its origin. Today, libido is influenced by a plethora of developmental, psychosocial, and cultural factors. It is recognized as an important force in Darwinian evolution of natural selection, with an evolutionary purpose to urge species to procreate and pass their genetic material to subsequent generations.

A generalized sex drive is a common trait of mammalian and avian reproduction; therefore, many species experience fluctuations in their sexual responsiveness during the estrous cycle. Women remain sexually receptive in a physiological sense throughout the menstrual cycle, with subtle cyclical variations. From an evolutionary perspective, any mechanism that can increase the frequency of intercourse during fertile days has a selective advantage by improving the chance of conception.

The human sex drive is very mental with deep roots to our cultural surroundings. Although the basic sexual drive is primarily biological in nature, specifics of attraction can be influenced on a cultural level, especially at an early age of life.

Hormonal and neurobiological basis of sexual drive

In men and women alike, libido is directly linked to androgen hormones, namely testosterone. As men have approximately 40 times as much testosterone as women, they are thought to have a more intense sexual drive; however, more aggressive behavior is demonstrated as well.

Such disparity in testosterone levels also exists in other mammals. As a result, most species show a bias towards a more pronounced sexual drive and aggression of males when compared to females.

The exact role of peptides in sexual drive and arousal is still not certain, partly because of their many roles and sites of action. Still, oxytocin, which is a neuropeptide that is often referred to as the “bonding hormone,” is important in both sexual and parental behavior. Besides regulating sexual drive, complex oxytocin neural pathways control penile erection and sexual motivation in general.

Dopamine plays a strong role in libido and motivation. This hormone and neurotransmitter is one of the key players in the human body. Steroid hormones set the stage for increased dopamine synthesis and its release during periods of enhanced sexual responding, resulting in an increased sexual drive.


Further Reading

Last Updated: May 23, 2021

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović

Written by

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović

Dr. Tomislav Meštrović is a medical doctor (MD) with a Ph.D. in biomedical and health sciences, specialist in the field of clinical microbiology, and an Assistant Professor at Croatia's youngest university - University North. In addition to his interest in clinical, research and lecturing activities, his immense passion for medical writing and scientific communication goes back to his student days. He enjoys contributing back to the community. In his spare time, Tomislav is a movie buff and an avid traveler.


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