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Low Libido and Depression: What’s the Connection?

Medically reviewed by Janet Brito, PhD, LCSW, CST on October 24, 2017Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN
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Sexual desire, or “libido,” is an important part of most romantic relationships. When sexual desire fades, or disappears completely, it can impact your quality of life and your relationship with your partner. Both women and men experience low libido, but women often don’t seek treatment. It’s not unusual for a woman to be embarrassed to admit that she wants to improve her libido. Many women also assume there are no treatments available.

But low sexual desire can be a sign of a health condition. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) — now known as female sexual interest/arousal disorder — may be diagnosed if you have little or no desire for sexual activities. You may also have an absence of sexual fantasies that causes you serious distress or interpersonal difficulty. Low libido can also be a symptom of a mental health problem, such as depression.

For most people, sexual desire fluctuates over time. It’s natural to go through phases when you don’t crave sex as much. But, if your libido has been low for an extended time, and if it’s causing you stress or sadness, it might be time to talk to your doctor.

Researchers are still investigating the connection between low libido and mental health. But, they know it’s common for HSDD and depression to overlap. Whether occurring together or not, both HSDD and depression can have a big impact on your life and deserve medical attention.  

What is depression?

Major depressive disorder is often referred to as “depression.” It’s a condition that causes a person to experience depressed mood, lack of enjoyment in everyday life, or both. Everyone experiences slumps from time to time, but depression generally lasts longer. Some of the symptoms of depression include:

  • feelings of sadness
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss or gain
  • trouble sleeping
  • difficulty concentrating
  • low energy levels

Another symptom associated with depression is a change in sex drive. If you’re depressed, you may feel like you don’t have enough energy for sex. Since depression can also cause you to enjoy activities less, you may find that you don’t enjoy sex the way you once did.

The process can also work in reverse. It’s possible for a low libido to trigger feelings of depression.

For example, HSDD can cause depression-like symptoms, which may be connected to your relationship or lack of sexual desire. At the same time, having HSDD doesn’t mean that you’ll be diagnosed with depression. It’s possible for a person with HSDD to experience low mood related to sexual activities, but to feel positive about other aspects of life.

What does the research say?

Several research studies have looked at the connections and overlap between low libido and depression. Researchers have considered how common it is for women to experience both conditions, and what factors may increase the risk. Here’s a look at some of the major studies and the findings so far:

It’s more common than you think

An article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that about 40 percent of women with a sexual disorder also experience depression. The researchers found that an estimated 10 percent of U.S. women experience a “desire disorder.” An estimated 3.7 percent have problems with both desire and depression.

Risk factors include stressful life events and addiction issues

An article in American Family Physician found that risk factors for depression and low libido include stressful life events, such as a divorce or a lost job. Major life transitions — whether positive, negative, or neutral — may also be triggers. For example, a new baby or a child leaving home would be considered major life transitions. Ongoing relationship stressors are also a risk factor. Abuse of alcohol, drugs, or both, is also associated with increased risk for low libido and depression.

Depression may worsen HSDD symptoms

A study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that women who were depressed and had HSDD were less happy in their relationships. They also had sex with their partner less frequently. Plus, they had greater difficulty forming and maintaining relationships. Additionally, one-third of premenopausal women with HSDD also experienced depression.

Depression and low libido can have many contributing factors, along with a range of symptoms. Having one condition doesn’t mean you have the other, but it’s possible to have both at the same time. In either case, there are treatment options that may help.

Treatments for low libido and depression

When it comes to treating low libido, depression, or both, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. At-home strategies, relationship or marital counseling, sex therapy, and medical treatments are all options. Depending on your condition, the main goals of treatment may include restoring sexual desire, effective communication, reducing any symptoms of depression, and improving your ability to enjoy your day-to-day activities. Here are some common starting points:

Talk to a professional

For many women, the first step in seeking treatment is to speak with their family doctor.

If you prefer more specialized help, you can consult with a psychiatrist or a sex therapist. Any of these professionals should be qualified to discuss treatment options with you, or refer you to another expert who can. Therapy, such as mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (MB-CBT), is one treatment option.

This approach may help you to recognize thoughts and behaviors that are interfering with your sex drive and overall happiness, as well as increase body awareness. Another option is prescription medication, which is designed to reduce the incidence of depression.

Start communicating

Communicating openly with your partner is an at-home strategy that may help with low libido and difficult emotions. If you aren’t sure how to get started, talk therapy or self-help books offer a way to build your communication skills. Couples therapy is another option. Finding ways to open up the lines of communication with your partner may help you feel less alone and improve the intimacy in your relationship. In turn, for some people, this improves sexual desire.

Take steps to relieve stress

In some cases, stress contributes to feelings of low libido and depression. This can lead to a cyclical pattern, where having a low libido causes even more stress. Taking time for stress-relieving activities often makes a difference. Consider meditating, journaling, exercising, or listening to music. Finding ways to relax as much as possible may help reduce symptoms of both conditions.

The takeaway

Although most people experience ups and downs in their sex drive, a low libido can be a cause for concern. Women may be quicker than men to dismiss their own symptoms, instead of seeking support. But talking to a doctor can help you get a better understanding of the treatment options available. It’s not uncommon for low libido and depression to overlap. Take the time to tell your doctor if you’ve had symptoms, such as feelings of sadness or a depressed mood.

If you prefer to try an at-home approach, consider working on your communication skills and making more time for stress-relieving activities. Spending quality time talking and relaxing with your partner may be the first steps you take toward feeling better. 

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