One of the most common complaints related to taking antidepressant medications is their impact on one’s sexuality. For the most antidepressants prescribed today, sexual side effects are often significant — and troubling (in a way quite different than depression is).
I mean, it’s one thing to think, “Great, this medication is helping alleviate my depressed mood.” But in the next breath, you have to admit, “My sex drive has gone out the window. I just have no interest in sex any more.” And let’s admit it — sex is a pretty important component of most people’s romantic relationships.
That’s why a recently published study may provide some hope.
Antidepressants are a common form of treatment for severe and moderate clinical depression. In 2012, they accounted for more than half of the most-commonly prescribe psychiatric medications in the U.S. — 13 out of the top 25 medications were antidepressants.
Sadly, one of the more common side effects with SSRI antidepressants are sexual. A lack of sexual desire, no interest in sex, and uncomfortable sex are all connected with taking an antidepressant. As with all side effects, these vary in intensity and significance from person to person.
We know exercise can help someone with a depressed mood. For people with clinical depression, exercise alone won’t usually be sufficient to treat depression. However, it helps improve mood across the board. Which begs the question — can exercise also help with the sexual side effects of antidepressants? Might people who exercise while on an antidepressant feel more sexually satisfied?
The current study by Lorenz & Meston (2014) looked at 52 women who were taking an antidepressant. Their sexual activity was first tracked for 3 weeks, to get an understanding of their baseline sexual drive on the antidepressant. The researchers took measures of sexual functioning, sexual satisfaction, depression level, and physical health.
Then the subjects were divided into two groups. One group was asked to exercise at least 3 times a week, and then have sex. The second group was also advised to exercise 3 times a week, but at any time they wanted — not connected to when they had sex.
This went on for 3 weeks, then the groups switched over to the other group’s instructions — those who were exercising only before sex were told they could exercise any time they wanted. The group who were exercising any time they wanted were instructed to exercise only right before they planned on having sex.
This again went on for 3 weeks. The same measures of sexual satisfaction, functioning, and depression were used as they were at baseline. What did the researchers find?
Exercise immediately prior to sexual activity significantly improved sexual desire and, for women with sexual dysfunction at baseline, global sexual function.
Scheduling regular sexual activity significantly improved orgasm function; exercise did not increase this benefit.
So that’s an interesting finding — exercise itself wasn’t found to help much. But scheduling exercise right before sex helped improve a woman’s sexual desire, and potentially their global sexual functioning.
The researchers concluded that, based upon their data, “Scheduling regular sexual activity and exercise may be an effective tool for the behavioral management of sexual side effects of antidepressants.”
Should a person go and start putting their sex life on a schedule, making sure to only have it after exercise? I’m not sure, but if negative sexual side effects are something you deal with while taking your antidepressant, it may be worth giving it a try and see if it helps. The research says it might.
Lorenz TA, Meston CM. (2014). Exercise improves sexual function in women taking antidepressants: results from a randomized crossover trial. Depress Anxiety, 31, 188-95.